3D printing has resulted in solid solutions like cartilages, organ replicas and even tortoise shells. But Disney Research now has a printer that can create soft, bendable objects - think 3D printing stuffed toys. The mechanics of the printer are similar to conventional machines that use plastics or metals, except this one works with fabric to create flexible and functional objects. Most additive 3D printers are designed to deposit materials in a specific spot, but fabric requires an alternative technique that imitates sewing or layering.
The researchers came up with a two-step printing process suited to fabric. First, a laser beam cuts through a sheet to create 2D shapes. The process retains the fabric surrounding the designated shape so it's easier for the sheets to sit on top of each other in the next step. Every laser-cut sheet is then layered and fused together with a heat sensitive adhesive that's commonly used in sewing. When printing is complete, the excess fabric is peeled off to reveal the object. For now, the researchers printed a bright red bunny prototype that demonstrates the cuddly possibilities and also a touch sensor with conductive materials that could join the next generation of interactive devices.
[Image credit: Disney Research]