MIT researchers print squishy 3D teddy bear

MIT Computational Fabrication Group

3D printing may be all the rage, but figuring out how to work the nascent technology to make lifelike objects with intricate surfaces can tie you up in knots.

So who else but some bright minds from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to come up with a way to simplify the printing process so you don’t need a degree from, well, MIT, to make your cool idea into a realistic image.

The MIT researchers created a new programming language to streamline the process so it will be easier to print objects with multiple materials, so they can be squishy and flexible at one place, firm at another, or reflect light and conform to touch. Right now, making objects like that is an arduous and technically challenging task and beyond the ability of off-the-shelf 3D printing software.

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“The problem is that you have to jump through a lot of hoops to do this,” said Kiril Vidimče, a PhD student and lead author of one of two papers MIT researchers are presenting on the subject Thursday at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Anaheim, Calif.

To demonstrate the advancements, they printed miniature 3D teddy bears and tiny bunnies that are flexible and feel like foam.

Most commercially available 3D printers that transform digital files into physical objects are single-material machines. Those printers can create hard bowls, sculpture, or toys out of plastic, but aren’t able to turn out intricate objects with varied surfaces.

The 3D printers that Vidimče and his colleagues work with are more advanced than printers most enthusiasts are buying online for around $2,000. The one they used costs about $300,000.

The next step for Vidimče and his fellow researchers who work in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, or CSAIL, is to develop applications to integrate their new techniques for complex 3D printing, which he said could be useful in health care or even Hollywood costume design.