We have seen 3D printers produce objects from plastic and even metal. But the Magic Kingdom is living up to its name with the announcement that it has designed a 3D printer capable of printing with fabric. A group of researchers at Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon and Disney Research unveiled the invention in a paper last weekend.
According to the researchers, the device is capable of forming precise, but soft and deformable 3D objects from layers of off-the-shelf fabric. Among the objects the research team produced were a fabric bunny, a Japanese doll, a touch sensor made of fabric, and a smartphone case with an embedded conductive fabric coil for wireless power reception.
Touch-Sensitive, Wireless Power
To form each object, the printer uses a single sheet of fabric to create each layer of the object. The printer cuts this sheet along the 2D contour of the layer using a laser cutter and then bonds it to previously printed layers using a heat sensitive adhesive. Surrounding fabric in each layer is temporarily retained to provide a removable support structure for layers printed above it. This process is then repeated to build up a 3D object layer by layer.
According to the researchers, the printer is capable of automatically feeding two separate fabric types into a single print, which allows specially cut layers of conductive fabric to be embedded in soft prints. The printer can use that capability to create touch-sensitive objects built from fabric in a single, unified printing process. In addition to touch sensitivity, the printer can also build objects that support wireless power as well.
Disney Research says the new process can create objects with the full range of characteristics normally associated with other products made of fabric, including the ability of material to drape over objects and to have variable flexibility. The device can print an object out of multiple fabrics, and can also manipulate the level of deformability.
Connecting Your Socks to the Internet
The technology is still in its infancy, with printing times remaining extremely long and objects limited to only two separate fabrics. But the applications are potentially widespread. In addition to creating soft objects like dolls, the paper’s authors also alluded to the potential for devices based on their invention to allow people to print customized articles of clothing, as well.
Perhaps even more groundbreaking, the ability to create clothing embedded with conductive materials and touch sensitivity, the technology opens the door to producing clothing that is connected to the Internet of Things.
“We believe our printer opens new opportunities in forming interactive and functional 3D printed objects which are flexible and soft to the touch,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “This in turn adds a new tool to the HCI toolbox which expands our capacity to build interactive objects that reach the user in new (and more familiar) ways.”