September 15, 2011

Faculty, Students Include ‘Evolution’ in 3-D Printing

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Continuing efforts to advance the emerging science of 3-D printing, a team of Cornellians created a website where Internet users can build their own 3-D objects through a process that mirrors biological evolution. The website — EndlessForms.com — allows users to choose a previously-generated shape and “evolve” it. The users first choose a shape from a selection of shapes, and then the website software randomly mutates the object to create fifteen variations. Once users are satisfied with the evolution results, they can send the finished design to the 3-D printing company Shapeways.The website compares this process to biological evolution. The originally-selected shapes “become the parents of the next generation of objects,” and the “offspring” look similar, but not identical, to their “parents,” according to the website.  Jeffrey Clune grad, one of the developers of the project, said the goal of the website, which launched on Aug. 18, is to let people of various skill levels produce an original 3-D object. “A lot of people aren’t using [3-D printing] because they don’t know how to use complicated 3-D [Computer-Aided Design] software,” Clune said. “We wanted to go down the path towards where computers allow us to go from a thought in our heads to an object in our hands as easily as possible, with as few technical skills as possible.”Prof. Hod Lipson, mechanical and aerospace engineering, said that expanding user access to 3-D printing would inspire interest in the burgeoning technology.“I liken the 3-D printing industry to iPods with no music,” Lipson said. “The printers exist, but the availability of content is bottlenecked by the old methods — like CAD — that few people know how to use.”Clune’s postdoctorate project, which is centered on using a “developmentally-inspired evolutionary process,” informs the website technology. “The key innovation here is that we use concepts from developmental biology … We can create similar designs to what nature would produce,” he said.While Clune wrote the original software for the website on his own computer, he enlisted the help of Jason Yosinski grad and Eugene Doan ’12  when he decided to make the program public, he said.Clune credits Cornell with expanding the scope of his work beyond the computer. “Until I came to Cornell, all of my work was confined to the computer. [Now] I’ve become much more interested in bringing things out of the computer into the real world so that you can hold them in your hand,” he said.According to Clune and Yosinski, the future of the site holds even more possibilities for the real world, such as artificial intelligence for the 3-D printed objects.“We’ve considered evolving moving shapes, such as 3-D robots,” Yosinski said. “On the site, they’re shapes, and they rotate, but they’re not actually changing over time.”Clune said he hopes to incorporate more of his post-doctorate research on artificial intelligence and robots with 3-D objects in the website.“I want each one of these things to start running around and flying,” Clune said. “So we’re going to … try to create an evolutionary process to kind of create some of the complexity that you see in the natural world in the computing world.”Looking to the future, Doan said he wants to improve the website code and performance and increase the site’s audience. “Just like evolution, part of the magic is in numbers. Sometimes people come to the site and get frustrated because nothing interesting is happening,” Clune said.But he said he remains optimistic.  “The more people that use it, the better it will get. With each passing month, people are finding these innovations [that] lead to an explosion of diversity,” he said.

Original Author: Kaitlyn Kwan