The shape of things to come
If Formula 1 drivers can have their seats personally moulded to fit their body shapes, why not the rest of us? Tom Shelley reports
A European project is focusing on providing people with exactly what they need to meet their individual circumstances. Seats, for example, are experimentally being made to match the shape and wants of children, especially those with disabilities.
The project is part of an initiative to facilitate the manufacture of products to better meet customers’ requirements. Making use of rapid prototyping and manufacturing technologies, the project is also targeted at making improved seats and helmets for motorcyclists, as well as medical prostheses, such as jaw and knee implants.
Custom-Fit is an EU-funded project involving 34 members from 12 European countries, led by Aiju, the Technological Toy Institute at Ibi, near Alicante in Spain, but with a management board that also includes representatives from Materialise in Belgium and the UK’s De Montfort and Loughborough Universities, plus Delcam.
As a test case, a customised seat has been designed for a seven-year-old child, whose leg joints turn through 360º. The seat can support him firmly and securely in a battery-powered car. The idea is that, if children feel really safe, they will want to play with the car that much longer – and are less likely to fall out. Formula 1 drivers already have personal seats made to fit their body form, so they are more firmly supported and can better handle the car through those sharp circuit turns and braking manoeuvres. Sports equipment and tools also become much easier to use when they are moulded to suit the hands of their users.
So how does it work? First, the shape is defined by having the child sit on a deformable cushion – which maintains its form when pressure is exerted on it – and then laser scanning the shape. The scanned cushion file is merged with the car seat CAD file and the prototype seat manufactured by selective laser sintering. For commercial application, other rapid manufacturing methods may be used, such as Power Plastic Printing.
One of the goals of the Custom-Fit project is to devise ways of making products with graded structures. These might be seats with fully dense surfaces where they come into contact with the person sitting on them, but with a more open structure behind, in order to save material and weight; or human implants with scaffolds of bio-resorbable materials to help them bond to bone. Alternatively, components with graded structures of different materials might be used as transition joints between components with widely different mechanical properties.
The three software partners working on this problem are TNO in the Netherlands, Fraunhofer-Ifam in Germany and Materialise, which is leading the software development. InnerSpace by TNO allows a designer to define material property distributions and also the distribution profile. It can define the material distribution for a whole object or part of an object at any location. Ifam, on the other hand, has developed Multi Phase Topology Optimisation, a finite element-based simulation technique that can be used to determine the optimum distribution of two or more materials in a component.
The project is also investigating the social implications of the technologies for future business and consumer development, and developing training modules in technology design and rapid manufacturing, among other topics. A broad diffusion campaign is being undertaken, in order to transfer the project philosophy to potential users and companies wishing to exploit the results.
* Custom-Fit is aimed at producing products that are tailored to individual personal requirements
* The demonstration project has been to develop a process to produce customised seats for toy cars for children with physical disabilities
* Other target applications are better seats and helmets for motorcyclists, and improved human implants
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