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Computational Thermoforming Creates Detailed Models Like Magic

Thermoforming isn’t new. It’s a technique often used in packaging and to make plastic objects. Even if you don’t know the term, you’ve probably seen a video of it before, it’s when a plastic is heated up and used to shape a mold (think of all those weird shaped items you buy that are completely wrapped in a hard plastic in the store, that’s how they get like that). What you haven’t seen before is this new form of computational thermoforming, which applies the same concept to make intricate and detailed models.

It looks like magic.

This video explaining the process and its advantages was posted by Christian Schüller, one of the people at ETH Zurich and Disney Research responsible for the technique. What it does is combine the principles of thermoforming with an algorithm “to convert a 3d model into a textured physical replica with an unprecedented level of detail and realism.”

face-thermoforming
They start with the negative of a 3D model filled with gypsum (a soft mineral, the kind you get when you make a plaster of Paris) that gives them a heat-resistant mold. They warm that up to safely remove their mold, which is then put in a calibrated position in the the thermoforming machine.

From there a plastic sheet with an intricate but distorted image is placed on top and heated up (to make sure the distorted image is correct they simulate the entire process first with a computer), and the mold below is then raised to the picture as air is sucked out, forming a vacuum. Just like that a flat image becomes a very cool, very tangible 3D piece, one full of vibrancy and life.

bread-thermoforming
Watching this video, as they make complex models of oddly shaped items, one-of-a-kind pieces, and miniature set pieces, it’s easy to see why Disney would be a part of this technique–it looks like magic, and that’s Disney’s whole thing.

And just try to remember that’s not really a loaf of bread, no matter how good it looks.

What would you want to make if you had access to this process? Print your best idea in the comments below.

Images: Christian Schüller/ETH Zurich/Disney Research

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