Imagine being able to sketch out 3-D wireframe objects in the real world. Instead of wondering whether that Ikea sofa will fit in the living room, you can just draw a life-sized model of it and check. Or, say, build a quick Christmas tree.
That’s what the Protopiper does. It’s a little gun that extrudes hollow tubes from regular adhesive tape when you squeeze the trigger, and the tubes are automatically terminated with sticky connector tabs. “Since the resulting tubes are hollow they offer excellent strength-to-weight ratio, and thus scale well to large structures,” say the authors of the paper detailing the Protopiper.
The advantage of using tape as a raw material is that it is pre-coated with adhesive, so it doesn’t need to be heated or otherwise treated to print an object. It is also relatively cheap and easily available.
For anyone who has tried to form tape into a tube, or just to stop it from sticking to itself and making a useless clump, the Protopiper may seem like a miracle. It pulls the raw strips through a series of “stencils” to slowly increase the curvature, until it becomes a tube, and the gun presses the overlapping edges together. But there’s a little more to it than that. The Protopiper has a small computer brain to add a few very useful extras.
There are three kinds of termination. One squeeze of the trigger will cut the end of the tube clean off. Two squeezes will give a “wing” cut, which is two sticky tabs ready to wrap around the next tube. Third is a hinge, which is a controlled kink in the tube.
The other trick is measurement. The Protopiper can produce tubes of a set length. Also, if you double-tap the extrusion trigger, it’ll replicate the length of the previous tube, so you can easily build regular shapes like cubes.
The most obvious use is for designers to quickly prototype ideas, but the resulting structures are also strong enough to make simple objects for actual use. And imagine getting one of these into the hands of a kid. It could be the most amazing toy ever invented.