3d printed teddy bear
April 29, 2014

Researchers Develop 3D Printer Capable Of Making Fabrics, Stuffed Animals

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Modern 3D printing technology has been used to create a variety of different objects, ranging from artificial bones to batteries and beyond, but researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research Pittsburgh have developed a new printer capable of creating something far more soft and cuddly.

Using a device described as a cross between a 3D printer and a sewing machine, the researchers report that they can turn wool and wool-blended yarns into 3D fabric objects made from a type of loose felt. The results, CMU Human-Computer Interaction Institute professor Scott Hudson said in a statement Monday, were similar in nature to materials that were knitted by hand.

“I really see this material being used for things that are held close. We're really extending the set of materials available for 3D printing and opening up new possibilities for what can be manufactured,” he explained.

Those possibilities could include apparel, accessories such as scarves and hats, and possibly even teddy bears and other types of stuffed animals. In addition, it could ultimately be used to create parts for so-called “soft robots,” or machines specifically designed for human contact.

According to Hudson, who discussed the device Monday during the 2014 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto, said that it functions much like other 3D printers in that it can develop objects using computerized designs as a base model.

“This printer allows the substantial advantages of additive manufacturing techniques (including rapid turn-around prototyping of physical objects and support for high levels of customization and configuration) to be employed with a new class of material,” according to Disney Research.

By creating a material that is “a form of loose felt formed when fibers from an incoming feed of yarn are entangled with the fibers in layers below it,” the company added that their printer “extends 3D printing from typically hard and precise forms into a new set of forms which embody a different aesthetic of soft and imprecise objects, and provides a new capability for researchers to explore the use of this class of materials in interactive devices.”

The so-called felting printer can be used to quickly develop prototypes of objects and to customize products, and uses a process similar to the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technique common in low-end 3D printers, the researchers explained. In FDM printers, melted plastic is extruded in a thin line into one layer, and then additional layers are added, adhering to each other as the plastic cools in order to achieve the desired shape.

However, in the felting printer, the printer head feeds out yarn instead of melted plastic. The printer head has a barbed felting needle attached to it, and that needle repeatedly pierces the yarn and drags the individual fibers down into the yarn and the layers below. This intertwines the fibers and causes the layers to bond together.

Hudson said that the printer does not have the same dimensional accuracy as conventional 3D printers since the yarn is far thicker than the layers of plastic deposited during FDM printing. Likewise, the felt is not as strong as normal types of fabric, meaning that a layer of nylon mesh fabric had to be added into the printing process in order for soft objects to be attached to harder ones to prevent the material from tearing at the attachment point.

During his presentation, Hudson reportedly demonstrated techniques for bridging hard and soft materials, as well as for altering how stiff the soft objects are and how electronic components could be added to the process. Currently, the printer is only capable of producing fabric objects, but Hudson said he believed that it could be possible to develop a device capable of producing both fabric and plastic elements in a single fabrication.