Digitizing the Analog: The Ever-Expanding Toolkit For 21st-Century Makers

Simplified design tools are helping makers take their ideas from 2D concepts and sketches into digital 3D models that can be readied for the production pipeline

Billy Crystal’s signature Saturday Night Live character, Fernando, frequently reminded viewers that it’s better to look good than to feel good – a sentiment that might work for Hollywood playboys, but is anathema to today’s makers who hold form and function tight in both fists.

Crafters, tinkerers and DIYers around the world are leveraging new technology to service a fundamental human drive – to create things that both fulfill a need and delight the eye. That said, many makers today have great ideas and even the know-how to execute, but putting together a polished rendering that both inspires onlookers and facilitates industrial production may fall beyond easy reach. This places some innovators in a bind, given the rapid rise of 3D printing as the go-to method for mock-ups and prototypes.

Great ideas can languish for want of a proper digital expression – something that demonstrates how it works and just how good it looks.

Not surprisingly, this gap between the 2D concept and a 3D reality has attracted a crowd of innovators. Increasingly, makers from the hard-core hobbyist to the most enterprising inventor have access to digital design tools that make it easier to visualize and refine their creations at the same time they’re ramping up for the production pipeline. We’re calling these abundant new resources “accessible design tools” because of the intuitive interfaces and simple analog-to-digital conversions that can coax even the crudest cocktail napkin sketch into full 3D glory.

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Much of the innovation in this space is in the mobile platforms and apps that facilitate the translation of an idea into three dimensions. The key is creating a process that appeals to makers who aren’t already industrial designers or who would rather be welding than mastering a new piece of software.

Morphi is looking to nail down the extreme end of user-friendly, no-tech-required 3D modeling. Created by New York-based startup, The Inventery, Morphi is built for touchscreens and angles to appeal to everyone from hobbyists who want a printer-ready rendering of their latest decorative item to makers looking for prototypes they can use to tweak ideas or even move into scalable production.

As an illustration of it’s versatility, Morphi’s creators recently took the app to classrooms to demonstrate its potential for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) students – essentially, the next generation of makers – to promote creativity and teach basic truths of design and manufacturing.

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Taking the easy-to-use concept a step further, Rendor turns your smartphone into a personal 3D scanner. Place any object on a special printable grid and shoot a video of it from all angles. Rendor converts the footage into a 3D file, ready for tweaking, tinkering and, of course, printing. Though still conducting beta tests, Rendor creator Replica Labs is making big promises.

The app’s tagline is “Imagine Anything, Copy Everything,” with the intent to empower even the least tech-savvy of makers to build on objects they find in the world around them. Rendor developer Vincent Mamo says, “We’re aiming to compete in the field of precision, too.” He highlights Rendor’s cutting-edge algorithms that capitalize on the parallel processing power now found on many handheld devices to quickly generate surprisingly high-quality models.

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Of course, Morphi and Rendor are still middlemen, of sorts, using the brute force of a smartphone or tablet to translate maker ideas into 3D files that can then be passed along to printers or manufacturers. But not every maker uses a smartphone or needs a digital intermediary for their creative impulse. Some of them even (gasp) eschew the Cloud altogether.

Much of this creative community is firmly rooted in techniques of art and design that predate the 3D printer or CNC machine. Think pencils and paintbrushes, scissors and glue. These old-school creatives may find a perfect bridge to the modern era in the LIX 3D pen. LIX recently raised more than $1.2 million on Kickstarter with a sleek hand-held device that allows anyone to fashion physical objects simply by sketching in the air.

Heating and releasing a steady, controlled stream of ABS or PLA plastic filament, the pen seems especially well-suited to doodlers and users who want to generate simple mock-ups or rough replicas of an idea without having to break out the tablet or a Printrbot. Quick, three-dimensional and as intuitive as a gesture, LIX promises to give even the most design-challenged makers a way to bring creative concepts to life.

Ideas to reality. Function with form. Looking good AND feeling good. More and more makers are free to innovate and produce even without an expensive suite of design software. That’s accessible. That’s, as Billy Crystal would say, “mahvelous.”

The ‘Maker’s Manual’ spotlights the do-it-yourself Maker Movement and how new computing technologies are helping democratize the creation of things once limited to craftsmen and professionals.  This 10-week series from PSFK and iQ by Intel will explore trends and feature interviews with artists, inventors and entrepreneurs who are turning their ideas and dreams into reality.

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