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Disney Research Develops Method for 3D-Printing Connectors

04 November 2015

A new method developed by Disney researchers allows for the automatic customization of connectors that can be 3D-printed. The system, called AutoConnect, allows for the connection of standard and free-form objects including pipes, flat surfaces, boxes, game controllers, toy animals, or coffee mugs.

With AutoConnect, users can choose the items they want to join, indicate how they should be aligned and provide information, such as size and weight. The system then generates several alternative designs that connect the items securely so the user can select the one that would be the best fit.

"The promise of 3-D printing is that people can personally create customized objects, but it's often a difficult promise to fulfill because 3-D objects can be so hard to design," says Jessica Hodgins, vice president of Disney Research. "That's particularly true for connectors, so we think AutoConnect could become an important and valuable tool as the 3D-printing revolution continues to grow."

Shinjiro Sueda, a post-doctoral researcher at Disney Research, says that one of the key goals of the project was to find solutions to connecting less common objects automatically.

Sueda and his colleagues have developed a set of mechanical holders for an array of objects, which can be altered in size or strength depending on the size and weight of a specific object, as well as a set of strategies for connecting these holders together.

How it works

The user must first provide 3-D models for both objects to be connected by downloading or scanning them. Using these virtual models, the user then shows how the two objects should be aligned when connected. The user also can specify if there are areas of the objects that cannot be covered, for example, the face of a smartphone, and if the object can be slipped out of its holder or secured tightly.

Using those specifications, size and weight information, AutoConnect generates several alternative designs.

"The user provides the 'what' and 'where,' and AutoConnect determines the 'how,'" says Sueda.

For free-form objects, AutoConnect designs a holder by selecting a "seed point," located symmetrically on the object, and then iteratively expands the area of the shell along the object's surface until the number of contact points on the object meets the design standard. For an irregularly shaped object such as a coffee mug that will be held loosely, the target shape of the holder can be based on the object's "convex hull," an envelope that would enclose the entire object.

If the holder is designed to hold an object tightly, AutoConnect automatically divides the holder in two and adds snap connectors to hold the two pieces together.

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