3D printing is the next generation of manufacturing technology. It allows 3D objects to be created from a digital model using an additive process by melting polymer plastics onto one another with the use of a laser. The process has become less expensive and more efficient since its launch in 1980.
- 3D Developments
The polymer resins used in the manufacturing process are now available from printing supplies companies but the printer technology is still far from commercial. Recent advancements in the printing technology has allowed more complex and solid objects to be created and a new material dubbed ‘carbomorph’ enables users to lay down electronic tracks and sensors as part of a 3D printed structure.
A major advantage of using 3D printing is that sockets for connection to equipment such as interface electronics can be printed out instead of being connected using conductive glues or paints. In the past, this technique was used to create purely decorative objects to show the advanced technology of the printer itself. Now solid objects have been created with ‘carbomorph’ the commercial applications can only be guessed at.
- The Future of Gaming?
The technique was recently applied to create a functional games controller. The printer created the shell of the controller and then microchips were added to complete the functionality of the pad. The controller does not have traditional physical buttons to interact with; instead touch sensitive pads perform the input commands.
The new material was developed by the University of Warwick and the developers say this is the first step in creating electronic devices using this method. The next step is to work on printing more complex structures and electronic components including the wires and cables required to connect the devices to computers.
The developers have already begun work on the next stage of creating objects that can be used in the computing industry. The team are developing ‘exo-gloves’ out of a special polymer labelled ‘polymorph’ and carbon black that can flex with the movement of a human hand inside. Such a glove can potentially be used in the computer gaming industry as a control interface for virtual reality movement.
The materials used to make the gloves have the unique quality of being able to be printed. The fact that they are made from plastics yet are still able to conduct electricity is also impressive. This material will surely revolutionise the electronics industry as the properties are fully realised and developed by engineers.
- A New Generation
The team behind this new technology are confident that this is one of many potential applications for 3D printing. Lead researcher behind the ‘carbomorph’ printing Dr Simon Leigh hope that a new generation of engineers and entrepreneurs will advance this technology further.
“Designers could also use it to understand better how people tactilely interact with products by monitoring sensors embedded into objects. However, in the short term I can see this technology having a major impact in the educational sector. For example, allowing the next generation of young engineers to get hands-on experience of using advanced manufacturing technology to design fairly high-tech devices and products right there in the classroom.”
Whatever the case, it is certain that 3D printing is set to revolutionise the ways in which we work and play, offering plenty of potential for further advancement.