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Disney Research's new 3D printer can print in fabric

Disney Research has had a second go at creating a 3D printer capable of creating flexible objects made of soft fibres.

Disney Research

3D printing is getting better at printing in flexible material, but fabric is still a little on the tricky side. Disney Research is hard on the case; after its "3D printing" needle-felting machine a year ago, the film company's research arm has revealed, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, another fabric "3D printer" that taps into additive manufacturing.

The so-called "Layered Fabric 3D Printer" works along principles similar to those used in polymer deposition. A 3D model is broken down into slices, which are translated into the 3D printer. This is where the two techniques diverge.

Rather than being laid down by an extruder nozzle, the Layered Fabric 3D Printer uses a laser to cut the outline of each layer from a roll of thick felt. This layer is then deposited onto the print bed, where a layer of heat-sensitive adhesive is activated by a warm disc on the print head.

This process is then repeated until the object is fully "printed," whereupon the excess fabric can be removed, revealing a yet soft and flexible layered object.

The printer is also multimaterial, and can integrate two types of fabric into a single object. This allows, for example, conductive fabric to be embedded in a print, creating a capacitive touch input, or embedded circuit paths. This, Disney Research said in the paper, allows the printer to create custom objects on demand that are also interactive electrical objects.

Disney Research

Obviously the technique has its drawbacks compared to selective laser sintering or fused deposition modelling. Firstly, it produces a fair amount of waste material. Secondly, the individual layers are much more visible -- the felt used is around two millimetres thick, compared to the 0.1-millimetre layer thickness for a high-resolution FDM 3D printer.

In an object larger than the 6.35-centimetre (2.5in) Stanford bunny test print -- which took around two and a half hours to print -- these layers would be less pronounced, Disney said.

"The layers in the bunny print are evident because the bunny is relatively small compared to the felt we used to print it," said Disney Research scientist Jim McCann. "It's a trade-off -- with thinner fabric, or a larger bunny, the layers would be less noticeable, but the printing time would increase."

The Layered Fabric 3D Printer was unveiled at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Seoul, South Korea, on April 18.