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The FreeD: Creativity without compromise

New milling tool developed by MIT researchers may have wide implications in oil, art and medical industries

Following a 3D mold, the FreeD (pictured above) allows users to carve complex, yet creative, sculptures with little-to-no sculpting skills. Using a computer-monitoring system, the FreeD prevents users from drilling too closely to the core of a design. Researchers hope this device will someday be helpful in fields other than art. PHOTO COURTESY OF MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY.

Following a 3D mold, the FreeD (pictured above) allows users to carve complex, yet creative, sculptures with little-to-no sculpting skills. Using a computer-monitoring system, the FreeD prevents users from drilling too closely to the core of a design. Researchers hope this device will someday be helpful in fields other than art. PHOTO COURTESY OF MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY.

Feeling artsy? Unable to create anything more than stick figures? Well, you just might be able to achieve years of sculpting experience in minutes with a new technology created by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. The new device, called the FreeD, gives users adept carving skills without compromising their creativity and freedom to express.

How it works
Amit Zoran, the lead researcher of the project and a postdoctoral associate at MIT, has focused on this particular research for more than two years. Researchers involved in the project said the goal of this device is to combine the precision of machinery with the creativity of artists.

The FreeD is a milling tool that allows its users to carve freely while simultaneously preventing them from ruining the core of their sculptures. It communicates with a computer, which has a virtual model of the sculpture, and tracks the motion of the drilling bit. While the user is unable to see the sculpture within the block of wood, or other material used, the computer sets coordinates for the model. When the user drills close to the surface of the sculpture, the computer slows down the drilling bit or moves the shaft. Then, the computer stops the drilling bit when it reaches the coordinates of the surface of the virtual model within the material. This prevents the user from accidentally carving too deep, a mistake easily made by amateur sculptors.

Roy Shilkrot, an MIT graduate student involved in the FreeD project, explained that the initial target audiences for the FreeD were people involved and interested in 3D design.

“You design something and you want to fabricate it, so you can then send it to 3D printing,” Shilkrot said. “But you can also be like an artist. You can be engaged in the process of making it, and this is the main idea of the project — to get you to be more engaged in the fabrication of your 3D design.”

Other features
The FreeD differs from previous technologies because it allows the user to engage in the creation of a unique piece of art without endangering the art’s overall quality. Although it follows a 3D model, the user has several opportunities to personalize the carving. In the static mode, where the virtual model is determined before the carving and cannot be changed during the process, users can choose the tool path, which allows them to choose the texture and size of the final product. Users can also choose either to leave extra material in parts or to drill down to the intended surface.

The FreeD V2, a newer version of the original FreeD, gives users even more creative freedom than the original model. During the sculpting process, users have the option of choosing between several virtual models, which means the final product can also be a hybrid of several different models. For example, sculptures made with the FreeD V2 can yield a cross between a lion and a bird — or even something like Napoleon Dynamite’s “Liger” — rather than an ordinary, preset design.

Another additional feature is the user’s ability to override the computer. As explained by Zoran, Shilkrot and MIT associate professor Joseph Paradiso in Human-computer Interaction for Hybrid Carving, “the maker can intentionally ‘damage’ the model, working around or inside the virtual shape, allowing for physical improvisations.”

Further applications
Aside from its “cool factor,” the FreeD may also hold a variety of applications in several fields.

“We’re not actively working on the research part, but we do have some things coming up,” Shilkrot said. “There was some interest from the industry — there was interest even from the [U.S.] Navy. They were talking about how to use it to clean corrosion in pipes.”

Shilkrot also said some people from the medical industry hope to apply the concepts of the FreeD. He explained how many of the procedures done by hand in orthopedics could be improved by using a tool with technology similar to the FreeD’s sculpting technology.

Some Boston University students see many other possible applications for this technology.

School of Management sophomore Fred Schmidt said he believes this technology could improve the healthcare and medical industries.

“As a result of Obamacare, more people are going to have health insurance, so more people are going to have access to care,” Schmidt said. “There’s going to be more surgeries because more people can now afford them. If you increase the percentage of someone surviving surgery with this device, there’s a lot more value added in that than in carving a cheetah out of wood.”

Meghan Thommes, a College of Engineering post-graduate student, said the technology must be based on proper dimensions of a patient’s body.

“The problem with it right now is it’s going off of a 3D model already,” she said. So if there’s a way to do a model of someone’s body through different imaging techniques and then transfer that into a 3D CT image, you could do something to help surgeons out.”

In addition to deciding where to make the incisions, this technology could also be useful to doctors while they’re performing surgeries.

“If it’s a very complicated surgery, they could help make sure they’re cutting the right thing,” Thommes said. “You would need the biomedical engineers to help develop the tools, but in the end, it would be more for doctors to use.”

Yassine El Yousfi, a sophomore in ENG, also believes that the medical field could benefit from this kind of technology.

“You could use models to analyze where to make the best incisions,” El Yousfi said. “That would probably take a while to survey with your eyes, but with 3D modeling, it would be really quick, really easy.”

The technology used in the FreeD could also have many uses in engineering.

Edward Casanova, chief project manager for a large, multinational oil company, explained that this technology could be used in power tools, “such as grinders, where less skilled workers can grind out bevels or weld spatter without causing damage to base piping.”

“[It could also be applied] where precise excavations are needed to avoid existing underground cables or piping,” he said. “The computer could direct or stop the excavator when it gets close to the obstruction.”

The petrochemical construction industry could benefit from the FreeD being used in the insulation for piping and valves because with such complex shaped items, it would be easier to cut the insulation accurately.

Christine Duong, a freshman in ENG, said she believes more research is required for the FreeD to avoid injuries.

“While I find the tool interesting and helpful for exploring the creative side, I do not know how useful it would be used in physical safety,” she said. “The tool tracks what they call a ‘tool path,’ but there is no mention of a sensor that determines a change in material. There does not seem to be a way for the tool to distinguish between wood and someone’s finger.”

As it is right now, the sensor and computer only interfere when the drilling bit reaches certain coordinates, or points, in the carving material. Because of this, it would be unable to differentiate between a person and the carving material. This is a potential problem that researchers hope to prevent with further research.

The FreeD is valuable new technology that has the potential to empower artists and improve many other industries. While already valuable in its own right, this device may also be the launching pad for future technological discoveries.

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