Researchers Create 3D Felting Printer: Produces soft cuddly objects

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Earlier today we reported on the work being done by Disney Research on the 3D printing of electrostatic speakers, enabling the integration of the speakers within any object, in any shape desired. It appears that felt-2Disney Research is just as excited as we are about the future of 3D printing. It turns out that they are working with Carnegie Mellon University on yet another 3D printing technology referred to as a “felting printer”.

3D printing has thousands of applications, but one thing that it lacks is cuddliness. You can’t 3D print items which are soft to the touch, things like teddy bears, toys for infants, and clothing. This all has changed with a new 3D printing process developed by some of Disney Research’s most talented engineers, along with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

The newly developed felting printer allows researchers to print objects with yarn. The machine itself looks like a hybrid between a 3D printer and a common sewing machine. It works very much like an FDM printer, such as a Makerbot Replicator, but instead of extruding melted plastic filament, layer by layer, it uses yarn, which is then driven down into the layers beneath it, creating an attachment via entanglement. Just like any method of 3D printing, computer software slices a 3D model into layers, and each layer is systematically deposited onto the print tray, which in this case is lined with a cloth-like material.

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One of the lead researchers on the project from CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Scott Hudson stated, “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.”

Unlike the accuracy seen in some FDM printers, the felting printer can’t get as precise. This is because it’s limited by the width of a piece of yarn. Researchers are now working on methods of integrating 3D printed plastic elements connected to the felt-like prints, using a layer of nylon mesh as a bridge between the two materials, preventing the softer felt-like print from tearing.

“A number of researchers are looking at mixed materials in 3D printing,” Hudson added. “That’s one of the most interesting challenges now.”

Very soon we may have 3D printers capable of printing soft felt-like objects, interconnected with plastic printed materials, with electronic components also printed within. Each of these progressive steps, in the material science of 3D printing, leads us closer to a more integrated manufacturing approach.  For discussion about this topic, check out the felting printer forum thread at 3DPB.com.  More details on the printer are in  the video provided by Disney Research below.

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