Disney Research has developed a new type of 3-D printer that uses layers of soft fabric instead of plastic or metal. The objects printed thus are as soft and pliable, as against the normal 3-D printed objects that are rough and solid.
The 3-D printer builds objects using a layering technique – a laser cuts the shape of the bottom-most layer from the material used felt, cotton, plastic as the case might be. The sheet then gets treated with a heat-sensitive adhesive and another layer of fabric is placed on the top layer. It is then laser-cut again in the shape the next layer – and so on. Just like many other 3D printed objects, though, the supports need to be removed, which in this case, is the spare fabric that fills out the cube.
It is possible to use different types of material, that are more rigid, or even electronics. The new printer is not quite at the “print me a teddy bear” phase, but commentators say, the technique could at a later date be used to make smart clothes and smart toys, or otherwise augment the 3-D printing process.
The printer is described in a paper titled, A Layered Fabric 3D Printer for Soft Interactive Objects-Paper, authored by Huaishu Peng (of Disney Research Pittsburgh and Cornell University), Jen Mankoff (of Carnegie Mellon University), Scott E Hudson (of Disney Research Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University), and James McCann (of Disney Research Pittsburgh).
While at first instance, the practical application of the machine, apart from making lovable toys for kids may not be apparent, according to the team at Disney Research, the models could be enhanced through the addition of conductive fabrics, electronics, even a wireless near-field communication (NFC) device capable of lighting an LED on a smartphone case.
The 3D printer can use two fabrics in one print job, allowing for the integration of such conductive materials, such as wiring, into one of the fabric sheets.
Though a full list of specs is not available, the authors worked with a 10? x 10? x 10? build volume. They say ”printers of larger sizes could be easily constructed using this same design.”