Companies like Makerbot have proven that not only is there sufficient public interest in 3D printing technology, wonderful things result when it’s applied to problem solving rather than mere creative expression. For the past few years, people have been speculating about what people will be able to construct through 3D printing in the future. We’ve seen prototypes of everything from running shoes to houses, but most 3D designers admit that they still lack the right material to make durable, practical appliances.
Scientists at the University of Warwick are developing new materials that will help solve their problem. They recently created a simple and inexpensive conductive plastic composite which could one day allow people to print out custom-designed personal electronics such as games controllers which perfectly fit their hand shape.
The new material has been nicknamed “carbomorph” and unlike other plastics used for 3D printing, it enables users to lay down electronic tracks and sensors as part of a 3D printed structure. This capability allows the printer to create touch-sensitive areas fwhich can then be connected to a simple electronic circuit board. So far the team has used the material to print objects with embedded flex sensors or with touch-sensitive buttons such as computer game controllers or a mug which can tell how full it is.
“It’s always great seeing the complex and intricate models of devices such as mobile phones or television remote controls that can be produced with 3D printing, but that’s it, they are invariably models that don’t really function, said Dr. Simon Leigh from the School of Engineering. “In the long term, this technology could revolutionalise the way we produce the world around us, making products such as personal electronics a lot more individualized and unique and in the process reducing electronic waste.” A major advantage of using 3D printing is that sockets for connection to equipment such as interface electronics can be printed out instead of connected using conductive glues or paints. This reduces the use of chemicals in electronics, and also makes them easier to hack, repair, and eventually recycle.
Leigh says that in the short term carbomorph and 3D printing could transform engineering classrooms, giving students hands on experience with advanced manufacturing techniques to design fairly high-tech devices and products that they can hold within minutes instead of months.