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the Puffer – from digi to real

by Tom Kluyskens. Average Reading Time: about 6 minutes.

wireframe overlay


The Puffer is a design collaboration by Sascha Ulber & Tom Kluyskens, and was realized, from concept to build, in less than 5 weeks. Sascha lives in Germany, and Tom in New Zealand, a 12h time difference. What follows is a story of a month-long endless-day relay, involving lots of Skype calls and little sleep.

The Puffer is a booth structure, and was to become the center of attention at Siggraph Asia, in Hong Kong, December 2011.

On request of our friends at Jupiter Jazz and Jadason Technology, Sascha developed the concept of a structure made only from open (truncated) cones.

Early test showed us that we could ‘unroll’ the cones into flat shapes to be lasercut. We were underway!

early unroll test


The Puffer is an extreme example of parametric/procedural modeling. Complex algorithms are used to generate the geometry. To handle this substantial task in a minimum amount of time, Tom used SideFX Houdini, very powerful visual effects software for movie production.

the Puffer - making of


Here are some of the parametric modeling stages as shown in the video below:

- base shape with door and windows
- poly tesselation
- high curvature and edge detection (we want smaller circles there)
- initial point distibution
- circle instancing
- result of sphere packing solve
- extrude of circles into cones
- (red edges) showing true connections between circles
- strengthening rings (only in bigger cones)


Here’s an animation of a sphere packing solve:

A mix of algorithms was used, all iterative:

- Static circle radii + averaging position of every circle so as to minimise overlap with neighbors. This causes migration of circles to less populated parts.
- Controlled radius variation to reduce overlap with neighbors.
- Migration to promote a minimum of 5 connections with neighboring circles.

The final result was obtained by carefully balancing these methods.

We’re interested in hearing about other solutions for this problem.


Once we had a good distribution of circles…

- we offset them inwards and outwards
- created truncated cones
- unrolled the cones (they are developable)
- added holes, slits
- added engravings: part number and other indications


We designed the connectors for the opening/closing of the cones to be very easy, yet preserve their necessary tension and roundness:

They worked so well, we’re releasing them as an open source design (under a CC attribute sharealike license). Click the image to download the .svg.


the Puffer - making of


Next up was nesting: laying out all the pieces in such a way that they can be cut without errors, yet minimise use of material. Our sheets were approx. 2m x 3m, and we ended up needing about 50 of those. Some of the longer pieces (for the windows and door) had to be split in 3 to fit the sheet dimensions.

the Puffer - making of


Ready for production!

After having failed to secure material and cutting capacity in China at such short notice, Sascha put his extensive network of engineers and manufacturers at work in Hamburg, Germany. This meant extra pressure, as we needed to make sure we could ship it to Hong Kong in time (and get all the necessary paperwork done for such an undertaking). We were 2 weeks away from build at this time!

Material was found in stock, just enough for our needs: 3m x 2m x 1.5mm sheets of opaque white Axpet. No room for error. Amazingly, the 1000 or so unique pieces were lasercut without a single error. Gotta love the Germans!

It took 2 days to cut all the pieces.

the Puffer - making of

In the meantime, custom shipping boxes were being made:

the Puffer - making of

With one week to go before build, the paperwork was ready, the boxes underway, and Sascha finally had a proper night’s sleep.


But the adventure was far from over. We needed a wooden base to secure the Puffer to floor and walls with. That needed to be cut locally. So Sascha was on a plane to China, and spent a few days in Shenzen getting these pieces cut. The CNC machine used was so old, the pieces had to be hand finished…

Puffer base cut in Shenzen

But the result was perfect:

Puffer base cut in Shenzen

Also a little scary, because for the first time we saw how big this thing was. We had had no time for prototyping at all, so there were some uncertainties about whether or not the Puffer would actually work. This was the extent of our prototyping:

the Puffer - making of


In the same factory we had a bunch of Octo Stools cut and finished:

Shenzen Octos


For a few days, it was the silence before the storm: waiting for the boxes to arrive and the convention floor to open. Well, silence isn’t the word – Hong Kong is a pretty good party town, and we were in need of some proper R&R.

fish resto


The build.

With 45h of allotted time to get things done, we set out to build the Puffer. We made a litle doco on the build: see the video below (we advise to watch it in HD on YouTube).

Here’s a rough overview:

- measure the site
- lay thew plywood foundation as precisely as possible
- boxes arrive
- pieces sorted by type and number
- assemble!

To know where which cone number had to go, we had charts like these:

Screen Shot 2011-12-09 at 18.48.20

So the assembly team called out numbers to the cone team.

Cones come in two types: the smaller ones, without an inner ring, and the bigger ones with rings. Rings help strengthen the bigger cones. The rings turned out to be a little too loose, so we used a series of zip ties to attach the rings to the cones. This was very time consuming, but made the cones very rigid.

the Puffer/booth

To connect the cones to eachother, we used these automotive rivets:

They’s supereasy to insert (and remove non-destructively!): you push them in from one side, and they expand on the other side, locking everything into place. This basically saved the build phase from running over-time. It also made the deconstruction super fast.

Deconstruction took only 2 hours, but construction took 30h, with a team of about 8 people, mainly because we had to drill holes for the zip ties, doors and windows.

To identify and know how to insert a cone, we had engraved the number in a special way:

- the number was always engraved on the inside of the cone
- numbers were underlined to avoid ambiguities
- for the walls, the number was positioned nearest to the floor
- for the roof, the number was positioned closest to the wall
- roof cones were indicated by a roof over the number
- foundation, door and windows pieces were indicated by a double line under the number


The result was amazing to behold, as it always is when you see realised a thing that previously only existed as bits and thought.

It stood by itself, but needed the slightest support to display its intended shape:

the Puffer/booth

the Puffer/booth

the Puffer/booth


Here’s a time-lapse of the build:

HD version on Vimeo.


And the mini-doco (in HD on YouTube):


And the team that made it possible:

the Puffer/booth crew


The Puffer deconstructs entirely non-destructively (except the zip-ties), fits in a box 2m x 1m x .5m, and will be put up again and again.

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