This Designer And Robot Working In Perfect Unison Is The Future Of Making

It’s like Ghost, but with less Patrick Swayze and more burning plastic smell.

Designing 3D objects behind a 2D screen has its limitations. It requires you to shape something, wait hours to print it, and then fix your mistakes when you can feel them in your hands. But a new project led by Cornell researchers imagines a future where you can design and sculpt 3D objects right in front of your eyes, working in concert with a robot.


Called the Robotic Modeling Assistant (RoMA), and featured on Prosthetic Knowledge, the user works inside an augmented reality headset with motion controllers. They can step up to the printing plate and shape a 3D model in situ–actually grabbing the platform, turning it, and examining the virtual object from all angles. As soon as your virtual shape is drawn, the robot goes to work. Holding one of those 3D doodling pens, it quickly constructs a tangible wireframe to your specifications.

But that’s just a fancy 3D printer, right? What’s the big deal? The innovation lies in the interface itself. You see, while you work on one side of the object, the robot works on the other. That means you can keep designing while it builds. And you can even grab the plate, spin it to design out your shape further, and the robot will pause its own work immediately. Don’t worry, you won’t lose time on the build. The robot will rethink its construction plan in real time to build out another part of the object while you work.

[Photo: Cornell University/courtesy Huaishu Peng]

In practice, this user-friendly choreography, in which the robot constantly dances around the designer, allows the designer to add new components to the physical model as they go. Researchers demonstrated this by instructing the robot to build out the core body of a teapot. When the designer wanted to add a handle, they could spin the object around, hold their finger out, and draw a virtual handle that wrapped perfectly around their flesh.  With RoMA, real-world constraints can be improvised atop a design in real time. You can even build wireframes over normal physical objects, or mix objects into the work mid-print. Researchers demonstrated this by stacking Lego minifigs onto an in-progress work, then wrapping them in plastic.

All of this is light years from the way 3D modeling works today, and about as close as you can get to shaping molten plastic like clay. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a symbol, too–a proof of concept that, while robots will make us obsolete, they’ll also open the door to creative endeavors we can barely imagine today.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.