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Awww. Look what Disney Research 3D-printed

Disney and Carnegie Mellon explore the softer side of 3D printing with a technique that uses fibers to create snuggly objects.

3D-printed teddy bear
This teddy bear started as a 3D computer file. Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Most things that come out of 3D printers are not the sort of items you want to hold to your chest and smoosh your face into while making cooing noises. That's changing with the development of a technique that can create fabric objects using wool and wool-blend yarns. Finally, 3D printing has gone huggable.

Scott Hudson is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. He developed the felting printer with backing from Disney Research Pittsburgh. The printer works similarly to a regular 3D printer, except it uses yarn instead of plastic spools to create the layers. A felting needle pushes through the yarn, attaching it together. It's a lot like what would happen if you were to cross-breed a 3D printer with a sewing machine.

"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," says Hudson.

The prototype machine has some limitations. The finished objects can be pulled apart a little too easily. Use of a flexible adhesive may improve this issue in the future. The thickness of the yarn also means the process is less precise compared to what you get from the finer layers of a regular 3D printer. For a teddy bear, this is charming. For other uses (like a hat that doesn't let the wind through), it may need to be improved.

Beyond teddy bears, the felting printer could eventually be used to create clothing, soft robots, or squeezable Jabba the Hutt toys. Hudson is looking ahead to applying this innovation for the development of mixed-media printers, ones that could combine hard and soft materials. For now, a teddy bear is a good start.