If you're not an expert in 3D printing technology, it's possible to order a variety of existing 3D designs through a variety of online apps.
If, however, you want an object that exactly matches your specs, you've probably experienced a bit of frustration.
Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, or CSAIL, are trying to address the problem with the development of their Fab By Example project.
It's a method aimed at helping people design products which includes dozens of template models that can be used to customize items like cabinets, baby carriages, tables and even a go-cart.
"When we design things on a computer, the question arises of how to manufacture them in the real world with the necessary physical parts — wood, glass, screws, hinges, bolts and all. For casual users, creating such a detailed model is not just time-consuming, but it's actually more or less impossible unless you know something about mechanical engineering," says Adriana Schulz, a PhD student at CSAIL and the project leader.
Using a drag-and-drop interface, the software allows users to mix and match materials, and then position, align, and link the various parts without regard to the workings going on behind the curtain.
Made up of a large database of templates, the models are actually broken down into hundreds of parts. In the case of the go-cart, that level of detailed bill of materials is taken down to individual fasteners and screws.
The "parametric" nature of the models offers ways users can manipulate the templated products and the team says the database will one day include models of cars, houses and nearly any other item a user might need. Designed for the neophyte, only basic computer skills are required to make the system work.
Developed by CSAIL members David I.W. Levin, Pitchaya Sitthi-amorn, Wojciech Matusik, Ariel Shamir and Shulz, the findings were presented at Siggraph.
Even as 3D printing is poised to help democratize manufacturing, it's often overlooked that many 3D printed items are far too complicated for users to digitally design.
While it hasn't yet been released to the public and Schulz says the database of templates is currently meant to be illustrative, she sees a day when users will be able to fabricate "practically any object." She added that it may one day be possible to order a full bill of materials directly from the database, optimize the product for price or speed-of-delivery and perhaps even send it to a service which would handle the installation on site.