Sunday, November 25, 2012

Embedded Electronics and Rubber: More is Better

One of the most limiting factors of 3D printing is the material. While designs and ideas can be freely transported on the internet, material will always have to be physically there. And of course not any material will work for any project, simple plastics can only go so far. That is why the true expansion opportunity of 3D printing lies in material development. In the past week there have been two announcements that may prove to be major in expanding the potential of 3D printing:
Source: The University of Warwick

1. Embedding sensors on the cheap

Dr. Simon Leigh (right) out of the University of Warwick (MSL & AM Lab) has used conductive plastics to create sensors within 3D printed objects to create everything from simple game controllers to cups that can detect how full they are. The material is a relatively inexpensive plastic composite, dubbed 'carbomorph', that allows for electronic tracks and sensors to be added. The process is nice because it is simple and compatible with current 3D printers. While printing electronics is not new (see here for the press release for a joint project between Stratasys (SSYS) and Optomec Inc. from March this year) making it cheaper would greatly expand the potential it has to impact the 3D economy. Moving forward the project will try and print more elaborate electronics. (For a more comprehensive article on the details of the project, click here, For an interview with Dr. Leigh see here)

a) the CAD design of the printed interface device and the simple circuit used to detect inputs, b) a photograph of the printed device, c) a macro image of the printed sensor pads (scale bar 5 mm), d) the capacitance of each printed sensor pad plotted against time e) an enlarged portion of the graph from part d showing the cross-sensitivity of each sensor pad.  Source: The University of Warwick

2. Rubber to the Road

3D printing materials are rigid, that is until now. Objet announced earlier this week the release of 16 new materials. Bringing their industry leading materials count to 123 (press release). The new materials take the standard plastics that are on the market and manipulate their toughness and elasticity. This expansion allows for the realm of 3D printing to expand in ways that were not previously considered, such as "soft-touch coating, non-slip surfaces, knobs, grips, seals, hoses, and footwear" (See here for a gallery of other possibilities)  that can add that extra comfort and functionality to a your 3D printed dream. This announcement reinforces my point made in an earlier post that when/if the Stratasys-Objet merger goes through the new company will have a strong position in the material development sector of the 3D economy which promises to be huge!

Headphones printed in one session with padding
 around the ears and at the top of the head
Source: Objet