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Over your oven? 3D print new, smarter controls with RetroFab

Take a look at your oven and ask yourself whom it was designed for. The controls are set at a particular height, and you have to reach across the burner to turn it on or adjust the heat. That makes it harder for kids to reach, and the same is true for someone in a wheelchair.

“Some user interfaces automatically adapt to the environment (e.g., mobile or desktop) or to different target groups (e.g., children, disabled individuals, etc.),” Raf Ramakers told Digital Trends. “In contrast, physical user interfaces and appliances — such as ovens, thermostats, and toasters — are traditionally designed to be static and nonadaptive.”

Ramakers is a researcher at Hasselt University in Belgium. He developed a system called RetroFab while working at software company Autodesk, which lets users 3D print customized controls for household items, such as ovens, toasters, and alarm clocks, and lets you change dials to buttons or rockers to switches.

“A dial to select the AM/FM frequency on a radio could, for example, be replaced by five buttons to switch between their favorite radio stations,” says Ramakers, explaining how someone with limited mobility could use the system. “RetroFab then adds a stepper motor for controlling the original, difficult-to-operate frequency dial driven by the simple button presses.”

Make it easy

Because RetroFab was designed with caregivers and non-engineers in mind, the system is meant to not be intimidating. “The RetroFab design tool specifically targets users without a technical background,” says Ramakers.

As long as you have something like the Kinect that can use its depth-sensing camera to take a 3D scan, the system will guide you through the rest.  After you load the 3D, you highlight the device’s controls on the model. The system creates a printable 3D construction and offers redesign suggestions.

“User input is limited to highlighting controls on the original 3D scan,” Ramakers says. “From this point, users are able to dive into more advanced features if they wish, such as customized programs or interconnecting devices.”

The next step is for RetroFab to take the design, with user input on control size and placement, and make the design for the new overlay. It sends it to the 3D printer, which starts making the new control panel. When it arrives at your door, there is some assembly required, though RetroFab tries to make this part easy with color-coded wires and a custom tutorial included.

Right now, the 3D-printed components can look a bit bulky. They fit over your existing knobs and switches, after all. Ramakers says eventually the components used will get smaller, leading to less hefty fixes, but for now, he hopes designers will see the size as an asset to work with — like making a toaster look like a slot machine, for example. If your design-minded friend comes up with such a fix, RetroFab’s creators think one day there might be a database of designs that users could contribute to.

Make it smart

It’s not just an aging population that might benefit from a “RetroFab-ed” kitchen. The program allows you to add interconnected features, like syncing your alarm and lights, for example, as well as sensors and other monitoring devices. First-time cooks could burn way fewer meals with the right equipment.

“Instrumenting pots and pans with additional sensors could show a beginner the right heating settings for making the perfect medium-rare steak or al dente pasta,” says Ramakers.

With 3D printing letting people design and create their own sneakers, a more customized world is on the horizon. While that means we’ll have devices that fit in better with our unique lives, it will also lead to more waste — like if you have to toss out your Revolv smart-home hub because it’s no longer being supported by Nest. Imagine if that happened with your smart fridge or oven. That’s something Ramakers is thinking about: “Especially for expensive appliances and home automation, a modular toolkit, like RetroFab, which enriches the existing infrastructure without requiring permanent structural changes, provides a more durable and reusable solution for physical interfaces in a time when technology advances quickly.”

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Jenny McGrath
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jenny McGrath is a senior writer at Digital Trends covering the intersection of tech and the arts and the environment. Before…
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