Soft and cuddly aren’t words used to describe the plastic or metal things typically produced by today’s 3D printers. But a new type of printer developed by Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research Pittsburgh can turn wool and wool blend yarns into fabric objects that people might actually enjoy touching.
The device looks something like a cross between a 3D printer and a sewing machine and produces 3D objects made of a form of loose felt. Scott Hudson, a professor in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute who developed the felting printer with Disney Research support, said the results are reminiscent of hand-knitted materials.
Like other 3D printers, Hudson’s machine can make objects by working directly from computerized designs. It thus can be used for rapid prototyping of objects and to customize products.
In fact, the operation of the machine is similar to Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM, the most common process used in low-end 3D printers. In a FDM printer, melted plastic is extruded in a thin line into a layer; subsequent layers are added to achieve the object’s desired shape, with the layers adhering to each other as the plastic cools.
In the felting printer, however, the printer head feeds out yarn instead of lines of melted plastic. A barbed felting needle attached to the printer head then repeatedly pierces the yarn, dragging down individual fibers into the yarn in the layers below, entangling the fibers and bonding the layers together.
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Details about the research can be found in this Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) Conference Paper: Printing Teddy Bears: A Technique for 3D Printing of Soft Interactive Objects (2014)