LegoCAD: Improving the design process through a Lego-inspired tangible interface

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Mechanical Engineering

Abstract

While CAD systems have been immensely beneficial they require specialist knowledge and expertise for their operation, particularly where advanced modelling, simulation and analysis (virtual prototyping) is to be used. This requirement, combined with their dependence upon 2D digital interaction limits user engagement, constrains design process activities and restricts design performance. This includes the nature and level of collaboration and co-creation within design teams, with users and wider stakeholders; the accessibility of virtual prototyping tools including rapid prototyping; and the efficacy of the design (team) when undertaking tasks, such as ideation, design development, evaluation and DfX activities. To overcome these restrictions, the concept of a Lego-inspired tangible interface for CAD, virtual prototyping (VP) and rapid prototyping (RP) is to be investigated. The corresponding research programme comprises two interrelated research streams. The first addresses the technical and HCI challenges associated with the creation of real-time physical-to-digital model integration and user-in-the-loop digital-to-physical model integration. Both of these topics offer significant future research opportunities in their own right. The second research stream concerns investigation of the affordances, complementarity (with VP tools) and limitations of a Lego-inspired tangible interface for improving collaboration/co-creation, design performance and accessibility to VP and RP. Given the exploratory nature of the research three engineering domains will be considered: industrial design (assistive technology), special purpose machinery and construction.

Planned Impact

The UK remains a top 10 industrial country with a strong emphasis on innovative devices and products. Technologies such as CAD and 3D printing have been instrumental in supporting and expediting innovation processes. However, many designers and innovators are either not proficient with CAD systems or do not have the necessary time and/or financial resources to commission design houses to undertake product development activities. As a consequence, many ideas are very slow to progress or falter long before a commercially ready product or even a fully functional prototype is produced. In addition, it is all but impossible to involve end users or the general public in collaboration/co-creation activities via CAD systems. This project will seek to address these aspects through the creation of a tangible engineering design interface realised through integration of CAD with Lego. This will make CAD and Virtual Prototyping tools more accessible to designers/innovators and end users, as well as increasing the speed and quality of the process. For example, once a physical Lego model has been constructed and refined the resulting CAD model can be used to execute 3D printing with relative ease. The prerequisite for a CAD model, and corresponding proficiency in CAD, in order to produce 3D prints is acknowledged as one of the major barriers to the uptake of 3D printing. Thus, in addition to eliminating the need for CAD skills, the project will expedite the construction of physical models to allow further improvement in user engagement much earlier in the process via the resulting 3D prints.
 
Description The feasibility study aimed to explore the potential of a Lego-inspired tangible interface (physical-to-digital and digital-to-physical) for improving aspects of the engineering design process with a particular focus on two themes. First, the technical and HCI challenges associated with the creation of real-time physical-to-digital model integration and user-in-the-loop digital-to-physical model integration were investigated. Second, the potential of a tangible interface to increase accessibility, stakeholder engagement and improve co-creation/co-design were explored. The results associated with each of these themes are now summarised.
Theme 1: Physical-digital and user-in-the-loop digital-to-physical model integration
With respect to physical-digital model integration the focus of investigations was on evaluating and trialing techniques for simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) of Lego-like models. Initial studies evaluated vision-based approaches, which exhibited limitations in terms of occlusion and sensitivity to lighting conditions. Consequently, two alternate sensor-based approaches for SLAM were developed. The first utilised RFiD technologies to record parts inserted into the work space via a gate and then employed a stylus to localise the placement of the part. This semi-automated approach enabled physical-to-digital model synchronisation at each step in the construction process. The second approach employed MEMS-based inertial measurement units (IMUs) embedded into each part in order to provide real-time localisation of all parts within the work space. Once constructed the model can be tri-axially revolved generating relative velocities and accelerations for each part. Post-processing of the signals enables SLAM and re-construction of the model in a digital environment. The signal processing techniques and algorithms developed are currently under preparation for publication.
With respect to what is referred to as user-in-the-loop digital-to-physical integration, a novel approach based on embedding distributed digital rules within physical parts was explored. Here Lego parts included an embedded micro RFiD. Rules concerning the relative arrangement and location of individual parts and/or their function were then generated dynamically for each part. Individual parts may then be interrogated using an RFiD reader with the user interpreting the rules in order to design and construct a physical model. The system, termed 'Instructiblocks' has been used to explore the concepts of human-actuated digital-to-physical models and also a preliminary exploration of the impact of rule ambiguity on design and construction. Novelty for the former concept lies in the user-interpretation of ambiguous digital rules (model) when constructing a physical instance of the digital model. This results in non-identical physical models that are all acceptable interpretations of the digital rules (model) and is in stark contrast to extant approaches that focus on creating and maintaining geometrically identical digital-physical models. In the case of latter concept, the Instructiblocks technology has resulted in a digital-physical interface that is capable of being used to practically explore the impact of design rules on design outcomes. As an example, the construction of a spacecraft by 20 participants with a given set of ambiguous rules was undertaken, and revealed the variation possible given an ambiguous rule set without violating rules as defined within the system. A further study employing three sets of rules of increasing fidelity (definition of relative arrangement and function) has shown how increased fidelity reduces design freedom in terms of topology and overall form.
Theme 2: Improving accessibility, stakeholder engagement & co-creation/co-design
Work within this theme has focused on the use of Lego-like digital-physical construction kits for supporting particular design tasks and activities. Initial scoping studies explored the use of Lego-like construction kits for designing. A range of domains was considered including industrial, automotive, architectural and mechanical systems. These studies revealed the trade-off between limited fidelity of part form and benefits of standardisation imposed by construction kits. The conclusion was that construction kits favored early stage generative design activities and configuration tasks rather than embodiment and detailed design activities due to limited ability to make minor changes to form or position. The results of the scoping study led into two further areas of work. The first concerned establishing the requirements for evolving construction kits including flexible, multi-resolution, and auto-generated ('brickified') models of greater fidelity and has been published. The second stream concerned the investigation of the affordances of construction-kits for co-creation/co-design. Based on the scoping study the task of building design/layout was selected. Further, and in contrast to theme 1 where the concept of 'digital-physical integration' was synchronization (twinning) or conformance between a digital meta-model (rules) and physical model, here the concept of 'digital-physical integration' was to combine the affordances of both. Correspondingly a 'digital-physical design rig' was constructed and commissioned. The novel rig comprises a digitally augmented build area, part tracking and digital sketching. The rig has been used in three real world co-design scenarios:
1. The Coworking Hub at Bath Guild provides serviced offices for hi-tech start-ups. Here the rig is being used by the residents (70+) to explore the design of a new facility.
2. The Bristol Bath Science Park. Here the rig is being used by occupants of the Science Park and visitors to explore future expansion plans/scenarios for the 59 acre park.
3. The design of social-housing with the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol.
Exploitation Route Based on the findings of the feasibility project as at March 2017 we envisage that the findings may be taken forward in a number of ways:
1. Initial meetings and discussions have been held with the Future Cities Catapult. Here the experimental rig may provide a critical means of user/stakeholder engagement/co-creation.
2. Related to 1, meetings and an event with Knowle West Media Centre have been undertaken to explore the role of the technology for citizen-led design of social housing.
3. A full scale research proposal has been prepared and submitted to EPSRC. This proposal concerns the use and further researching of the findings to enable the role of design standards to be explored practically.
4. One of the PDRAs has applied for a fellowship to extend the findings to investigate the role of digital-physical interfaces for citizen-based urban living and lifestyle planning.
5. The feasibility project has been instrumental in informing a major research proposal concerned with twinning of digital and physical prototypes during product development. A £1.6M project has been secured from the EPSRC and will start in September of 2018. This involves all four of the original collaborators also.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

URL http://physicad.com/
 
Description Although still ongoing research, we have turned our attention to working with external partners/agencies to disseminate the findings and explore potential routes to impact. To date these include: 1. The Coworking Hub at Bath Guild provides serviced offices for hi-tech start-ups. Here the rig has been used by the residents (70+) to explore the design of a new facility. 2. The Bristol Bath Science Park. Here the rig has been used by occupants of the Science Park and visitors to explore future expansion plans/scenarios for the 59 acre park. 3. The design of social-housing in conjunction with the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol. 4. The 2017 Maker Faire in Newcastle. Here the digital-physical rig (interface) has been presented and demonstrated to 1,000+ visitors. 5. Designability. Here the InstructiBlocks system was installed for an extended trial for open-ended feedback. Further work will involve using InstructiBlocks in Designability led student design sessions. 6. The feasibility project has been instrumental in informing a major research proposal concerned with twinning of digital and physical prototypes during product development. A £1.6M project has been secured from the EPSRC and will start in September of 2018. This involves all four of the original collaborators also.
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Electronics,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Societal

 
Description Platform Grant
Amount £1,787,703 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/R013179/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2017 
End 11/2022
 
Description Standard
Amount £1,620,501 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/R032696/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 08/2022
 
Description Autodesk Global Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Prof Ben Hicks was invited to attend AutoDesk's annual conference for partners. The 10,000 attendee three day event took place in Las Vegas in November. During the conference there was ample opportunity to meet AU senior staff and AU partners. There was a lot of interest and positive feedback around our DSM work that can reveal potential dependencies as CAD assemblies are created and modified
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description City Blocks - Interactive Demo at Bristol Housing Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Interactive demo using LEGO as the basis for designing a community. The LEGO design is automatically tracked and a fully interactive VR world generated. The proposed design is evaluated computationally in the VR world and feedback is given to the user to aid them in improving their design. Further info can be found at https://dmf-lab.co.uk/blog/cityblocks/.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.bristolhousingfestival.org.uk/directory
 
Description Guild Hub engagement 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact physiCAD launched it first major technology demonstrator at the guild coworking hub in Bath. The coworking hub is a space for creative entrepeuneurs, startups and freelancers and is looking to redesign how the space in its building is used. The physiCAD team have built an augmented reality LEGO system to help engage the coworking hub's users in this process.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://physicad.com/2017/01/25/physicad-at-the-guild-coworking-hub-bath/
 
Description Maker Faire Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Design and Manufacturing Futures lab at University of Bristol took the PhysiCAD project to Maker Faire in Newcastle to showcase our work. We were a crowd favourite with about 500 people visiting our stand over the two days at the Centre for Life.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://physicad.com/2017/04/03/physicad-at-maker-faire-newcastle-2017/