A Configurator Tool that Considers Colour in the Design Phase
Designing with 3D Printing in mind especially for colour
When we launched our first full colour printer in 2012 it was clear that the industry just wasn’t ready for colour! Receiving good full colour files was a rarity (and still can be almost 5 years on!) as designing in full colour was a challenge. As we all know consideration must be given to the 3D printing production process during the design phase of any 3D model but adding colour adds another level of complexity. However, there are also different considerations depending on the 3D printing platform involved – FDM printers can only print one single colour at a time or in some cases 2 or 3 blocks of colour meaning that it would be possible to print a doll with a red body and blue limbs. These colour changes normally need to be built into the design of the model as the different coloured parts need to be printed separately. The same can also be said for other forms of additive manufacturing such as SLS and SLA. But there is another layer of intricacy with a full colour 3D printing platform like Mcor’s SDL which offers a range of printers that offers not only block colours but full CMYK printing capabilities meaning that you can achieve any colour at any time (ACAT) on the build.
So just to remind ourselves about the value of colour and why it is worth the effort in designing for full colour 3D printing see the following two models which demonstrates the value of colour:
Both models have been printed from the same basic digital data, have the same geometry but they look completely different. Adding colour to the file just adds a completely different level of detail even though the geometry is exactly the same. The human eye picks up this detail including textures and contours and makes the model super realistic. We have evolved to see in colour so we automatically pick up the extra detail that full colour offers and this is crucial in certain applications.
Limitations with current configurator modelling tools
Most configurator modelling tools for 3D printing provide the capabilities to allow single colour design changes but do not yet allow for easy alterations and application of images and true full colour printing. The current offering of configurator tools for manufacturers offer options for geometric customisation such as embossed text and change in sizes but are restrictive in terms of adding the full colour required to achieve truly unique parts. One example of the current offerings is Digital Forming which is used by web shops such as RaceWare.co. While Digital Forming offer a very solid solution for customising geometric data the colour choice is limited by the block colour derived from the materials used in the traditional additive manufacturing methods. An example of this is shown in the following figure which depicts a customised mount for a cycling computer that can only be bought in one of 17 different colours that the PLA or ABS materials comes in. But what if the rider wants to add full colour to allow them to match the colour to their jersey, bike or helmet or even to put a sponsor’s graphic on the mount allowing them to earn extra revenue.
We are a partner on the EU iBUS project http://mcortechnologies.com/a-future-in-which-children-will-design-and-produce-their-own-toys-is-nearer-than-you-might-think/ which is focused on doing just this! This project aims to develop an internet based business model, providing a platform for children and designers, to design and customise their own toys. The iBUS project is developing a configurator modelling tool which allows users to not only customize physical properties such as size, shape, lettering etc. but now the user can customize the visual appearance to a greater extent by applying images and texture maps. This can be seen in the following images which show the application of colour to a model and then a horse printed in a single pass in multiple colours. (Please note horse design courtesy of AIJU)
The novelty of being able to apply full textures to 3D printed models differentiates the software developed in this research from other software programs currently on the market. This has the potential to add a much greater level of customization and personalization to a toy.
For example, current configurator software allows a child to select a toy from a defined range which is produced by the manufacturer. An example of this would be a choosing a blue slot car over a red one. Additive manufacturing will allow the child to choose not only the colour of the car but also the form e.g. a larger rear wing, a longer body or change the curves of the body work. While this adds a level of freedom, there are still limitations in that the colours can only be in block form so the child cannot put a logo, pattern or photograph on the car. This is the advancement that is achieved by combining the iBUS platform with our technology.
3D modelling package for high quality colour models
To get good quality colour parts however we also need a good 3D modeling package that can provide high quality printable files that include the colour information. For this we need to move away from the file standards of STL and look to VRML and OBJ. This is provided to the iBUS platform by Dassault Systems who can provide a platform of full customizable models with the ability to select unique colours and materials. One of the benefits of the Solidworks suite of tools is that, since it is a solid modeling tool we know that any files produced in it will be a water tight mesh with no gaps or errors and this means that a file can be taken directly from the design package into the printer and reduce the need for human interference in the process allowing for a higher level of automation which is vital in the manufacturing industry.
Solidworks Make will allow users to select a colour for each customised section of the model or indeed add a material based off an image map and this information is exported in a VRML file format which adds the capability to describe either each vertex as a different colour which blend in the centre of the polygon, each face as a single colour or to assign a location on an image to each vertex thus creating a sort of development as in packaging design.
The iBUS platform
On the iBUS platform the customer is presented with a real-time configurator that allows them to have control of the size, shape and colour of their toy as well as the ability to add to the design with other design components such accessories or embossed text. In this demonstrator, we have shown this configurator in the image below and again in the following image. For this demonstrator, the toy being designed is a horse (Please note horse design courtesy of AIJU) which would have traditionally been made through injection moulding. With injection moulding the horse would have been a fixed geometric design and may have come in an option of 2 or 3 colours which would be produced in large batches. Through the configurator however the customer can select whether they want holes in the body or not, the length of the head, tail and neck, add customised text and finally choose a choose whatever colour they wish or indeed add a textured pattern.
Once the customer is happy with their design they place the order at which time their unique design file is exported to a VRML file that contains the necessary information to be loaded into the SliceIT or Orange software packages and manufactured on an Mcor 3D printer.
The following image shows a customised file which was exported from Solidworks Make and brought directly into the Mcor software offerings SliceIT and Orange. These files were ready to print straight away which provided a smooth transition from design to manufacturing.
The Mcor Software generates the tool paths and images for printing the colour and they are sent to the 3D printer. By printing the colour directly on to the build material at each layer using an inkjet printer the Mcor ARKe provides the ability to print in true full colour and therefore add a vital missing component to the customisation of the parts.
Since every toy manufactured is independent of the last, the colour and shape can be different on every single part rather than having to produce batches of different coloured or the same coloured toys with a long tool change or cleaning time involved in altering this. In the demonstrator conducted as part of this work package a series of different configurations were received from the workflow and not only were they different configurations of the toy horse printed in series one after the other but there were also 3 variations manufactured simultaneously on the same build plate. As can be seen from the following image the mapping of the texture is different on each of the 3 horses and the geometry of the neck, head and tail also differs.
This means that the user can go online or instore, design their toy; the part instantly goes into production and is shipped to them or to the store for collection with results in a very short lead time.
The benefits of using the combinations of these technologies can be seen in the image below which shows the same part printed first with an FDM printer, then an Mcor printer with no colour and finally an Mcor printer with full colour. Each of these progressions shows a better result and a more appealing toy is manufactured as a result.
So it is exciting to think that full colour is an important enough feature to be considered in this configurator tool. It is clear that full colour is paramount to certain applications like customised toy manufacturing because as you can imagine full colour is really responsible for bringing these type models to life!
Let’s hope we continue to see consideration for ‘full colour’ in the 3D printing industry moving forward!
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 646167. This blog post reflects only the author’s view and that the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
For more information on the iBUS project please visit – H2020ibus.eu