Disney Research has developed a wild new 3D printer that creates models out of fabric

disney 3d printer fabric bunny 630 2
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.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Product Review

This was 3D printed? With the Anycubic Photon, you can't tell

Never mind the fact that the Anycubic Photon 3D printer only costs 500 bucks. In terms of sheer print quality, this printer is on the same level as machines that cost six times as much.
Emerging Tech

Warm ski beanie instantly hardens into a head-protecting helmet upon impact

Wool hats are way more comfortable than hard helmets. You know what they're not? Safer. That could soon change, thanks to an innovative new ski beanie which instantly hardens upon impact.
Cars

Ford’s new Shelby GT500 Mustang will have 3D-printed brake parts

Ford's new $45 million Advanced Manufacturing Center will focus on emerging technologies, including 3D printing. One of the staff's first jobs is to print parts for the 700-horsepower Shelby GT500 Mustang.
Deals

Take to the skies with these 5 drones on sale for under $50

On the hunt for some cool tech for under $50? We've rounded up 5 drones under $50 that you can still get before Christmas. These models are great for kids, adults, and anyone just getting started with drones.
Emerging Tech

With this robotic garage, retrieving your car is like using a vending machine

Remembering where we parked our cars can be a real pain. But what if our cars came to find us, rather than the other way around? A new automated robot parking valet system aims to help.
Emerging Tech

A lidar-equipped truck knows exactly how much de-icer to apply on roads

Lidar is best known as the laser-based technology that helps self-driving cars sense their surroundings. But the city of Knoxville has another, more seasonal use for it: De-icing roads.
Cars

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…
Emerging Tech

This unusual nature-inspired robot is equally at home on land or in the water

This intriguing, nature-inspired robot may look unusual, but it's impressively capable of moving on both land and water without problem. Heck, it can even travel on ice if necessary.
Emerging Tech

This cryptocurrency wallet for kids isn’t nearly as stupid as it sounds

So you’ve taught your 6-year-old child to read, write, and play nice with others. What’s next? Give them a base understanding of cryptocurrency, of course. This Kickstarter aims to help.
Emerging Tech

Light, speed: Lighting kit for DJI Mavic 2 lets you fly and film in the dark

Lume Cube, maker of small battery-powered LED lights for mobile photography, has announced a new lighting kit built specifically for the DJI Mavic 2 -- the first of its kind. Already our favorite drone, this makes the Mavic 2 even better.
Emerging Tech

Prepare for liftoff: Here are all the important upcoming SpaceX rocket launches

From ISS resupply missions to a host of communication and scientific satellite launches, SpaceX has a busy year ahead. Here's a rundown of some of the company's most important missions slated for the next year.
Emerging Tech

Virgin Galactic’s latest test flight takes it to the edge of space

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has successfully carried out its fourth powered flight in Mojave, California. It was the company's most ambitious test flight yet -- and bodes well for the future.
Emerging Tech

We’re going to the Red Planet! All the past, present, and future missions to Mars

SpaceX isn't the only organization pining to visit the Red Planet. Here's a detailed list of all operational and planned missions to Mars, along with explanations of their objectives, spacecraft details, and mission proposals.