Humans love to stack things. In a constant fight against gravity, using flat layers as a building method is an obvious solution for many types of construction. This especially holds true for 3D printing, where computer generated models are mathematically sliced and then gradually printed, one flat layer upon the next. But, this obvious solution has an undesirable side-effect: stair-stepping.
Most hobbyists accept these "jaggies" as a minor caveat of owning an affordable 3D printer for custom manufacturing. Among professional users, artists and engineers, rough jaggies tend to be shunned. High resolution has its costs and many professional users cannot afford the more expensive machines. In order to ensure low-cost along with high quality, James Page and his crew at Topolabs has looked beyond traditional fused deposition layering techniques with a revolutionary new method that is biologically inspired.
James' novel approach to 3D printing grew from his childhood working on a tree farm. Since his mother was a botanist and his father had a PhD in forestry, the woodlands would be forever rooted in James' consciousness. As a product designer James began to explore 3D printing in 1995. He slowly formed connections between the layering process of fused deposition modeling and the flowing textures found in timber. Although he bought his first Stratasys printer in 2004 it wasn't until recently, when he started playing with lower-end models, that he found an amazing alternative to the normal FDM layering process. His new method of 3D printing was born from studying the growth patterns of trees.
In order to emulate the flowing growth structures of trees, James Page launched a startup, Topolabs, to embrace the notion that it's the software inside that makes a difference. Topolabs has created several algorithms that emulate the sinuous, sweeping patterns of wood. Using Topolabs' method, the final printed piece has an aesthetic pattern that is jaggie-free yet more structurally sound than the traditional FDM layer-by-layer methods.
Topolabs' algorithms are based upon on how a tree grows. Trees don't just add wood anywhere, they grow in the best way to support themselves. Trees even add "transverse" fibers for additional support. Currently, Topolabs has developed three algorithms for this organic deposition process and is working on seven more. The ultimate goal is to enable more people to create a wider variety products at the lowest possible cost.
Topolabs has printed a number objects using the new algorithms and will print many more to demonstrate that higher quality can be attained for a wider range of applications at a lower price. Printed pieces using Topolabs' FDM process include a lamp shade designed for an LED bulb that has flexible, interlocking non-planar pieces, bracket parts that can be bent 180 degrees without breaking, and a flexible strainer mesh.
Flat layers are actually a source of weakness in FDM printing. The strength between the layers is low. Topolabs fixes that. To achieve their increased strength, Topolabs' parts have a material grain that follows the shape of the parts. Topolabs' parts also have a fabric-like textured surface with no stair-steps.
Since the Topolabs process grows plastic in a tree-like manner, the creation of support structures is very efficient. Topolabs' algorithm also allows for similar parts to be grown on the same structure and for 3D decorative artwork to be added, something which is not feasible with existing software tools.
Eventually, Topolabs will have a front-end, cloud-enabled interface that will allow users to submit parts for conversion to the Topolabs process. The web site will keep users informed as to when Topolabs' services will become publically available. A Kickstarter campaign is in the works to fast-track funding in the months ahead.
The Topolabs team consists of Mark Sears, Co-Founder of the 3D printing company, Figulo (sold to 3D Systems); Greg Meess, a mechanical engineer with a knack for complex optics design; Carl Ransdell, who specializes in cloud component CAD technologies; Ishmael Philip, a talented UX designer skilled in API construction and scalable cloud solutions; Laura Gardner Smith, an experienced communications professional with a rich background in consumer technologies; and Cory Bloome, who specializes in automated mechanical systems ranging from multi-ton 5-axis robots to ice cream machines.
Page's eventual goal is to allow low-cost 3D printers to be capable of real manufacturing. Page believes that not only will the quality of printing improve, machine robustness will increase as well, ensuring less down time to allow parts to be printed 24/7. The greater philosophical goal of Topolabs is to enable everyday people to manufacture products. As the machines get better, along with the increased efficiencies enabled by Topolabs' algorithms, James envisions an explosion of garage start-ups enabling everyday people worldwide to have a stronger relationship with the products they produce. James thinks it's just common sense. By enabling more people to manufacture their own products you will end up with better products – and that is something for which we would all be thankful.