I’m not sure how ultimately practical this device is, but I don’t think that’s really the point here. A team at the Human Computer Interaction Lab at the Hasso-Plattner-Institut in Germany have created the Protopiper, a rapid prototyping machine built around a shipping tape dispenser (hey, if the 3D printer can basically be built around a glue gun…).


Basically, the Protopiper is a real-world printer of wireframe graphics. Using it’s on-board microcontroller, it rolls lengths of tape into sturdy tubes and seals them that the appropriate length. Attach the tubes to each other, and you have a totally tubular rendering of furniture, appliances, whatever wireframe structures you care to print out and assemble parts for.


The design team explains the idea behind the Protopiper in their research paper (available as a PDF):


Physical sketching of 3D wireframe models using a hand-held plastic extruder allows users to explore the design space of 3D models efficiently. Unfortunately, the scale of these devices limits users’ design explorations to small-scale objects. We present protopiper, a computer aided, hand-held fabrication device that allows users to sketch room-sized objects at actual scale. The key idea behind protopiper is that it forms adhesive tape into tubes as its main building material, rather than extruded plastic or photopolymer lines. Since the resulting tubes are hollow they offer excellent strength-to-weight ratio, and thus scale well to large structures. Since the tape is pre-coated with adhesive it connects into tubes quickly, unlike extruded plastic that would require heating and cooling in the kilowatt range. We demonstrate protopiper’s use through several demo objects, ranging from more constructive objects, such as furniture, to more decorative objects, such as statues. In our exploratory user study, 16 participants created objects based on their own ideas. They rated the device as being “useful for creative exploration”, “its ability to sketch at actual scale helped judge fit”, and “fun to use.


There are certainly easier ways of planning furniture placement than having to print out full-blown dummy furniture out of packing tape. So, it’s probably more the design thinking and engineering behind this device, and thinking of 3DP in an entirely different way, that makes this project noteworthy.


You can find more on the Protopiper on the HPI website. [via Gizmodo]