Conventional 3D printers are limited to one material and one material only: plastic. The type of plastic may very, but its inherent stiffness makes it less-than-ideal for printing anything delicately. New and different “ingredients,” so to speak, are the next frontier in 3D printing, and some progress has already been made on that front. 3D printing service Shapeways offers ceramics and clay, MarkForge’s Mark One can use carbon fiber, and some printers can even process foodstuff like dough. Perhaps, then, it’s not entirely surprising that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research Pittsburgh have invented a 3D printer that can handle wool and wool blend yarns.
Most 3D printers rely on Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) to produce objects, extruding melted plastic layer upon layer at specific points. That’s not exactly viable for textiles, which must be sewn together, but researchers built around that functional limitation with a clever two-part system. First, a powerful laser cuts a rectangle out of cloth held by a vacuum and shapes it into a single cross-section of the desired 3D object. Then the vacuum is shut off and the fashioned material falls into place on top of previously-cut layers. After it’s bonded with a heat-sensitive adhesive and finishes cooling, the printing continues until the machine reaches the final layer. The excess material is then cut away to reveal the finished product: a cuddly, 3D-printed plush.
Simple fabric is just the beginning, write the researchers. Not only can the flexibility of the object can be tailored precisely by varying the cuts, but using material with electrically conductive fibers can extend that conductivity to the objects themselves. The researchers experimented with a starfish that responds to touch and LED-powering smartphone case.
The research remains firmly in the academic phase for now — the co-authors are presenting the paper at the annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Seoul, South Korea. And given the slow speeds of most 3D printers, the process isn’t exactly tenable for mass production. But as the technology behind the it inevitably advances, novel applications could spring up. Who knows, maybe during your next visit to a Disney Store you’ll be able to watch a plush print before your eyes.