Replicas of coloured 3D models

Researchers at ETH Zurich and Disney Research Zurich have recently developed a new technique called Computational Thermoforming. It enables them to manufacture plastic replicas of digital 3D models, in which the shape and colour are reproduced in detail. This technique extends the range of digital fabrication methods and represents an efficient and cost-effective alternative to colour 3D printing.

But the industrial method is not suitable for inexpensive manufacture of small batches or even individual pieces of complex shape or colour-printed models,” says Christian Schüller, ETH doctoral student. In order to print these parts accurately, specialist equipment and elaborate calibration are required. The researchers have thus developed a method based on readily accessible and inexpensive equipment and materials, and which does not require highly specialised expertise.

In a first step, a simple 3D printer is used to produce a negative mould of a model made of polylactic acid (PLA), a single-colour plastic. This forms the basis for the temperature-resistant gypsum mould, which is required in thermoforming. After the thermoforming, it is possible to see whether the software has computed the printed image correctly.

The researchers are convinced that the new method can be used in digital fabrication and industrial applications to mould prototypes before large-scale production. Architectural firms and modellers could also benefit from this method to cheaply and quickly fabricate a 3D model based on their plans and visualisations.