3D Print Custom Interfaces for Your Home Appliances

By Drew Hendricks August 10, 2016

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a popular buzz term in the tech industry right now, and rightfully so. Our world becomes increasingly enhanced, efficient, and connected with just about each new groundbreaking IoT device that hits the market, whether it’s a smart climate control device or a hyper-intelligent home security system.

The world of 3D printing appears to be equally revolutionary, and it continues to rise in popularity as the technology becomes smarter and easier to use. Once considered a technology only accessible on a large industrial scale, continued improvement of 3D printing has made it suddenly available for the average consumer at just about any level of technical expertise.

The growth of these two technological realms leave many eagerly anticipating the future of smart, simple consumer offerings that promise to make the world, and people’s lives, a lot easier. There is one audience, however, that often gets left out in the cold during these conversations: the non-technical, non-savvy consumers.

There are many people out there who prefer the analog way of life and are perfectly satisfied with such things as a traditional alarm clock free of bells and whistles. Why would these people ever want to replace their functioning devices and appliances with cutting edge smart technology when they don’t see a need for any of it?

This is not to say that non-technical people couldn’t benefit from smart technology and easy-to-use 3D printing. The issue is making something that keeps the basics of analog and legacy devices intact while still offering the many perks of IoT technology on a non-technical level. Into this conversation comes RetroFab, a design tool invented by AutoDesk that retrofits analog physical interfaces on devices and applications with smart technology using 3D printers. With the goal of creating “an end-to-end design and fabrication environment that allows non-experts to retrofit physical interfaces,” RetroFab aims to maintain the simplicity of the controls of many analog devices and enhance them with smart, 3D-printed control panels designed to simplify the experience of appliances for even the most non-technical users.

Take your basic toaster, for example. Wouldn’t it be nice to streamline the toasting process from defrosting to perfect slice of toast with just one click of a button? The RetroFab tool allows you to do that. First, using any sort of depth-perceiving camera, such as a Microsoft Kinect, take a 3D scan of the control panel of the toaster. The RetroFit software shows the scan as a simple interface of buttons and knobs. The software then suggests a number of new controls for the device. For example, the software might suggest a “perfect toast” button that combines the defrosting and toasting commands into one button.

The RetroFit software allows the user to brush the new buttons onto the control panel overlaid on top of the original scan, using a tool on the software that’s as simple as Microsoft Paint. Once the new control panel is finished and designed to the user’s liking, the design is sent to the 3D printer. The completed RetroFab product will include the actuators and sensors needed to connect to the toaster’s original control panel. With the step-by-step assembly instructions provided by RetroFab, users can easily place the new control panel on top of the old one, and just like that, they’ve got their own custom perfect-toast toaster.

RetroFab also allows users that are comfortable with more immersive customization to connect various devices using a mobile app. Say, for example, you wanted your alarm going off to both turn on your bedside lamp and start the toaster. You can customize that function through the app, which helps keep track of the various functions of interconnected devices.

Raf Ramakers, one of the scientists on the RetroFab team, sees this new use of 3D printing as a very promising development for the future. “In many ways, RetroFab goes beyond the traditional IoT vision of interconnecting and monitoring multiple heterogeneous devices,” Ramakers explains. “Our technology enables users to change the behavior of devices and rearrange the layout of user interfaces. This allows for new opportunities, such as resolving design flaws in interfaces or enabling shortcuts to frequently used or personalized actions.”

Ramakers even goes as far to suggest that RetroFab technology can make life much easier and safer for those with limited mobility: “Many stoves, for example, have temperature dials located on the back panel which requires moving one’s arm over frying pots or pans. With RetroFab, these controls can be repositioned to a more convenient or safe location, such as the side panel of the stove. To further protect these controls from children, one could even add a key lock to the proxy interface.”

There’s no reason the non-technical user should be left out of the exciting improvements to home life being spurred on by developments in IoT technology and 3D printing. RetroFab gives these users the satisfaction of DIY home improvement with the technological advantages of smart home technology, suggesting that the Internet of Things may be even simpler and far more immersive than we think. 

Edited by Alicia Young
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