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Illusory Material: reimagining product design with multi-material 3D printing

A voxel-based design project by MIT designers Jiani Zeng and Honghao Deng

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Stratasys multi-material, multi-color PolyJet 3D printing process is arguably one of the most artful processes in the AM world. Designers and artists have used the technology to create some truly remarkable pieces: from 3D printed multi-color denim, to Neri Oxman’s haunting 3D printed death masks. Recently, a duo of designers from the MIT Media Lab used the technology to create products with a totally new aesthetic.

The project, called Illusory Material, was conceived by industrial designer Jiani Zeng and computational designer Honghao Deng in their time at MIT. The aim of the project was to use Stratasys’ J8 Series 3D printer to devise a new perspective on product design that was only possible using multi-material 3D printing. Another angle that came into play was that they wanted to create a dynamic physical design which could interact with users without the need for any electronic or robotic elements.

In coming up with Illusory Material, Zeng and Deng were inspired by lenticular printing, a well established technique that uses lenticular lenses to produce images that appear to have depth or that appear different from certain perspectives. An example of lenticular printing is advertisements that change depending on the viewing angle. Drawing from this concept, the designers used volumetric design and GrabCAD Voxel Print software to create 3D models with a lenticular surface effect.

This was not quite as simple as adding a ribbed effect to the part’s surface: the MIT students integrated the ripple effect across several layers using voxel-level design. This thorough design manipulation, which is dependent on multi-material printing, results in printed products that are quite magical to behold.

Illusory Material MIT Media Lab

The designers write on their website: “Imagine designing everyday products with ‘impossible’ materials that only exist in the digital world; imagine a future where designers can manipulate the color, texture, and reflectivity of materials across time and different viewing angles; imagine the future of color creation is not based on layers of chemical paints, but a combination with optical 3D printed optical lenses and simple color blocks; imagine you can build and test optical effect on any 3D surface you designed; imagine a physical material can display dynamically by itself without electronic input; imagine an invisible object that is informative, a hard object that feels soft….Everything becomes possible with multi-material voxel printing.”

In structure, the design concept integrates two basic parts: a top layer made from transparent VeroClear which consists of the lenticular lenses (i.e. the rippled texture), and an underlying colorful base layer made from VeroVivid materials.

Illusory Material MIT Media Lab

The design team not only created the Illusory Materials, they also developed a full computational pipeline that calculates the ideal lens geometry for each design that is input. This means that other designers can leverage the technique to create otherworldly products with shifting patterns, interactive messages or even touch-sensitive visual effects.

They say: “Our technology and pipeline allow every designer to play around with textiles, CMF or even material properties that don’t exist before in the design process, creating dream-like material and apply them into real-world product design. We want to introduce our methodologies to the world, so that every designer will have the freedom to create with materials they never dreamed of before.”

Illusory Material MIT Media Lab
(Photos: Jiani Zeng and Honghao Deng)

The innovative technique and design concept were recognized this year at the Reddot Design Awards, where the designers took home two awards, including “Best of the Best”. The project undertaken at MIT was supported by the students’ advisors Professor Axel Kilian and Professor Stefanie Mueller.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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