Plastic Bottle Upcycling with TrussFab

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Image from TrussFab.

A perpetual limitation of 3D printing is the print volume of the 3D printer. Any creations larger than that volume must necessarily consist of multiple pieces joined together in some way. My Luggable PC project is built from 3D printed pieces (each piece limited in size by the print volume) mounted on a skeleton of aluminum extrusions.

Aluminum extrusions are quite economical for the precision and flexibility they offer, but such capabilities aren’t always necessary for a project. Less expensive construction materials are available offering varying levels of construction flexibility, strength, and precision depending on the specific requirements of the project.

For the researchers behind TrussFab, they chose to utilize the ubiquitous plastic beverage bottle as structural component. Mass produced to exact specifications, the overall size is predictable and topped by a bottle cap mechanism necessarily precise to seal the contents of the bottle. And best of all, empty bottles that have successfully served their primary mission of beverage delivery are easily available at quantity.

These bottles are very strong in specific ways but quite weak in others. TrussFab leverages their strength and avoids their weakness by building them into truss structures. The software calculates the geometry required at the joints of the trusses and generates STL files for them to be 3D printed. The results are human-scale structures with the arbitrary shape flexibility of 3D printing made possible within the (relatively) tiny volume of a 3D printer.

Presented recently at ACM CHI’17 (Association for Computing Machinery, conference for Computer-Human Interaction 2017) the biggest frustration with TrussFab is that the software is not yet generally available for hobbyists to play with. In the meantime, their project page has links to a few generated structures on Thingiverse and a YouTube video.

 

Building with Acrylic: Thickness Variation

Thickness failIn the previous post, the laser cutter kerf was successfully compensated, admittedly in a way that left plenty of room for improvement in the future. This post will look at a different challenge of building with acrylic: variation in thickness of acrylic sheets. So far experience showed different sheets of “6 mm” acrylic can actually be anywhere from 5.31 mm to 6.03 mm.

Since most laser-cut acrylic projects are 2D in nature, any variation in acrylic sheet thickness usually goes completely unnoticed. But when building 3D structures out of multiple interlocking pieces, the thickness dimension has a significant impact.

Fortunately for us, while thickness can vary across different sheets, the thickness is relatively consistent within a single sheet. There may be some variation from one corner of a 4′ x 8′ sheet of acrylic to another, but once cut into smaller pieces that can fit in a laser cutter, the thickness can be reasonably treated as constant.

This allows us to treat thickness as a parameter in a Fusion 360 CAD file. Any slots cut for acrylic pieces will need to reference the parameter. So that when it comes time to generate the cutting profile, the thickness parameter can be updated with the thickness of the actual sheet of acrylic, and Fusion 360 will automatically recompute all the slot widths to match.

Which brings us to the attached picture illustrating human error: the assembly on the left is built up to the proper dimensions. In contrast the assembly on the right was too thin. I made the mistake of measuring on one sheet and cutting on a different sheet that turned out to be 0.29 mm thinner. 0.29 mm is a small difference, but when the assembly is built by stacking seven pieces together, it results in a significant dimensional error of over 2 mm.

Building With Acrylic: Kerf Compensation

After learning my 3D printer’s inability to hold dimensional tolerance, I went back to practicing building with acrylic. Laser cutter kerf may be annoying but it is at least consistent. Now that I know my choice is between a consistent kerf or an inconsistent extrusion width, I choose to deal with consistency.

A bit of Google confirms laser cutter kerf compensation is a fairly common problem people have sought to deal with. What’s less common are actual practicable solutions for designing 3D structures intended to be built up from laser-cut pieces of acrylic. While 2D work on a laser cutter is common, construction for 3D structures appears to be less so.

A laser cutter workflow usually ends in a series of vector graphics commands. Common formats are DXF, DWG, SVG, and PDF. All are good for describing lines, but they only describe where to cut. They don’t contain information on which side of the line is the desired output. So while it is possible for an automated script to offset all lines, it doesn’t know which direction is “inside” vs “outside” in order to perform the proper offset for kerf compensation calculation.

The CAD software (Fusion 360) knows this information, so I thought it’s an obvious place for such mechanism to exist. Google knew of people who have devised some very clever workarounds to make it happen, but not an actual feature in the CAD software itself. Before I started using other people’s workarounds, I thought I’d try to do it manually first, adding to the kerf amount to the dimensions of individual components to CAD.

The result was very encouraging, the laser cut pieces came out at the desired dimensions and pieces fit together with their edges well aligned. This validated my manual process but added mystery. What I did was tedious for a human, simple for a computer, but for some reason the software doesn’t do it. Perhaps I will find out why as I continue learning about laser-cut acrylic construction.

Successful kerf

 

 

Unity exploration on hold

After an intense few weeks with Unity, I’ve decided to put it on hold and come back to it later. The biggest problem is that, even though it can output to web browsers via WebGL, it is extreme overkill for projects that can be easily handled via Plain Jane HTML.

As an Unity exercise, I pulled art and assets from the old game Star Control 2. This was possible because (1) the creators of the game released the code in 2002, and (2) I’m no longer working at Microsoft. I was aware of the code release when it occurred, but my employment as a Microsoft developer at the time meant I could not look at anything released under GPL. Even that of an old game with zero relation to the work I’m paid to do.

Since it was a simple 2D game, bringing the assets to life using Unity severely underutilized Unity capabilities. That isn’t a problem, the part that gave me pause is that the end product is a lot heavier-weight than I thought it would be: Even when there’s only a few 2D sprites animating with some text overlay, it is a larger download with correspondingly slower startup than I wanted to see.

Given what I see so far, Unity is the wrong tool for this job. Now I have a decision to make. Option #1: Keep digging in on an old favorite, and work on SC2 code using some other framework, or Option #2: Find a project that plays more to Unity’s (many) strengths.

Option #1 goes to the past, option #2 goes to the future. (Specifically VR…. Unity is great for exploring VR development.)

Today, I find that I’ve caught the old SC2 fever again, so I’m going with #1. I’ll come back to Unity/VR/other explorations later.

 

Unity Mecanim Animation Notes

Unity’s learning center has a lot of information, I chose to start with the headliner tutorials. These appear to be full-day lectures during the Unite conference, where they take the class through building a game from beginning to end.

Since real games take more than a day to build, many shortcuts were taken. One of these shortcuts were the use of built art assets. All came already created, complete with their own associated animation sequences. The tutorial only covered how to import the items and write a few lines of code to trigger the animation sequences.

I have no illusions about being an artist but I also know I don’t have an artist to call upon as I learn Unity. So I had to know something about creating these assets for myself. I thought I would start small with a few simple sprite animations… that turned out to be not so simple.

The Unity animation engine (sometimes called Mecanim in the documentation) is a very complex machine optimized to work with humanoid figures in 3D space. It can certainly do simple sprite animations, but trying to do so became an exercise in figuring out what to turn off in the big complex machine. It keeps trying to do too much, blending and interpolating and trying to be helpful when all I really want was to put a few 2D images on screen at discrete coordinates at specific points in time.

It took way more time than it should, but (1) I got my simple sprite animations working, and (2) I learned a whole bunch about what the animation engine can do for me, down the line, when I’m ready to move beyond sprites.

It was a bit frustrating, but now that I’m through it, I’ll call it a win. Time to move on.

Onward to Unity Adventures

After deciding to move on from Phaser, I looked around for other game engines to generate web games. I came across Unity again and again. Unity is not new to me, but I also knew their web support was via the Unity web player browser plug-in. This is a problem, as browser plug-ins have fallen into disfavor. All the major desktop browsers Firefox / Chrome / IE, are moving away from plug-ins.

So… dead end (or at least dying). Plug-ins are not the future of the web.

Because of the web player, I dismissed every mention of Unity for web development I encountered, until I came across information that slapped me upside the head and woke me up. The web player is not the only Unity web target: Unity now has another web-friendly build target: WebGL, no plug-in required! Wow!

This warrants a closer look. While WebGL might be immature and inconsistent across browsers, it is a shared goal of many interests to evolve and mature the platform and I share their high hopes. The browser plug-in model is going away. WebGL may or may not take off but all the signs today look promising.

Unity had been on my to-do list of research topics, but it ranked lower than HTML-related technologies. (This is why I started with HTML, JavaScript, Node.JS, etc.) There are many interesting areas of development I can explore with Unity. Graphics, networking, user interface design, virtual reality, Android development, iOS development, the list goes on.

And now I learned that I can even explore some parts of the web world with Unity. It is quite the Swiss Army Knife of software development. With this latest discovery, Unity has moved to the top of my to-do list. It is time to roll up my sleeves and dig in.

This should be fun.