Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University collaborating with Disney Research have designed a machine that can 3D print in woollen materials.
3D printing has been great for consumers — if you wanted hard plastic thingamabobs. But now, it's starting to branch out a little, with the invention of— and it might be expanding into the realm of soft objects.
A team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research Pittsburgh have created a 3D printer that can make soft objects, like stuffed animals, out of wool and wool blends.
It looks a little like a cross between a 3D printer and a sewing machine — and that's kind of how it works, too. Once an object has been designed using 3D modelling software, a layer of felt is placed on the print bed. Wool yarn is then threaded through a needle attached to the print head.
To create the object, the print head moves over the felt layer, laying down the wool in the prescribed shape. A barbed needle then uses a technique called needle felting to bind the fabric together. It pierces the fabric, dragging fibres down through the lower layers, tangling them together to create a tight bond.
The resultant object resembles something that has been hand-made and felted.
"I really see this material being used for things that are held close," Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Hudson said. "We're really extending the set of materials available for 3D printing and opening up new possibilities for what can be manufactured."
Although consumer applications are possible, the teams see its potential somewhere along the same lines as current 3D printing — prototyping and customisation. They also believe it could be used to create parts for "soft" robots, and adapted to incorporate hard parts, such as electrical components — with the potential for multi-material hard and soft printing.
"A number of researchers are looking at mixed materials in 3D printing," Hudson said. "That's one of the most interesting challenges now."
Hudson will present a paper on the printer at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto on 28 April.