We like to think of musical instruments as the handiwork of some tortured craftsman squinting by candlelight over strips of exotic wood in his Italian hovel. But if Amit Zoran's gorgeous new flute is any indication, soon, we could be printing instruments right on our desktops.
Zoran, a grad student at MIT Media Lab's Smart Cities group, rapid-prototyped a flute that's designed to replicate the ergonomic and acoustical qualities of a traditional flute, using CAD software and an advanced 3-D printer. The amazing part: The thing actually works.
Mind you, the sound's not perfect; if you heard it at a concert, you might think you accidentally stepped into a fourth-grade recorder recital. That, though, is just a matter of fine-tuning (watch the film above for feedback from a trained musician). And it does little to distract from the matter at hand, which is that rapid-prototyping is now sophisticated enough to handle something as nuanced as a musical instrument.
Here's how Zoran made the flute: First, he modeled it in Rhino 4.0. Then he sent the files to Object's Connex500, a 3-D printer that can produce stunningly detailed objects made out of a bunch of different materials. (Your average 3-D printer won't create composite pieces and prints at a much lower resolution.) Fifteen hours later, the machine spit out four parts made of three materials: one hard for the body; one soft for sealing the air; and a third (of unspecified rigidity) for the mouthpiece. The parts were then covered in some sort of "support material," per the video, and assembled. The only other manual additions were springs. 'It sounds perfect in terms of the acoustics,' flutist Seth Hunter says, "if you just fix some of the keys matching together, I think this thing will feel good."
Obviously, 3-D printing won't replace our heroic Italian craftsman — or, more accurately, our heroic Chinese factory worker — in the near future. (The cost to create a flute using a fancy machine like the Object Connex500 is far outmatched by the bugginess of the result.) The most promising application here, then, is with entirely new, one-off instruments. An established manufacturer would never pony up to produce, say, a multi-pipe trumpet (see below), but if you're a clever guy at MIT with access to a Connex500, you're free do exactly that. Here's to hoping Zoran has tolerant roommates.
[Via The Creators Project]