New Soft 3D Printer Uses Felt for a Lighter Touch

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There are tons of different 3D printer models on the market, and just as many types of filaments. However, most of those focus on rigidity.

That makes sense, as you generally want a printed product that can stand on its own. However, Disney researchers have developed a new 3D printer that creates soft-touch products using layered felt.

What’s the point here? Good question.

Let’s find out.

The New Felt Printer

At first glance, felt doesn’t seem like the ideal print material. It’s soft, fuzzy, and, well, not obviously suited for creating three-dimensional items.

That didn’t stop the team from Disney Research, who worked with Carnegie Mellon University. The printer they created uses sheets of laser cut fabric to create three-dimensional prints that range from stuffed animals to doll clothing to smartphone cases.

And if you think that using felt limits the potential with this technology, think again. It even allows for circuitry to be embedded in the print.

According to a team spokesperson, “Today’s 3D printers can easily create custom, metal, plastic and rubber objects, but soft fabric objects like plush toys are still fabricated by hand. Layered fabric printing is one possible method to automate the production of this class of objects.”

Don’t think that the felt printer differs that much from conventional 3D printers, though. It still operates on the same basic premise.

That is, it lays down thin layers that become bonded together, eventually creating the finished 3D product. However, it does use a laser cutting process in addition to the additive manufacturing process used.

Essentially, the printer lays down thin layers of fabric, and the laser cuts them to fit into the overall design, eventually building up a three-dimensional, sculpted image.

The new printer technology also allows manufacturers to manipulate the stiffness of the print. By using a variety of interior cuts and designs on each layer, they are able to create items that range from stiff to flexible, all with the same material and during the same print.

Perhaps the most impressive test print conducted so far is a three-inch tall bunny that was created using 32 layers of felt that took about two and a half hours to create. “The layers in the bunny print are evident because the bunny is so small compared to the felt we used to print it,” the team’s leader explained.

“It’s a trade-off. With thinner fabric or a larger bunny, the layers would be less noticeable, but the printing time would increase.”

Currently, the team has created a broad range of items with this new technology, including a wired, felt star that operates a circuit board connected to a computer via a USB cable.

If the new soft printing technology sounds appealing, you’ll have to wait before you can add it to your home printing setup. The printer is only a prototype, although with the potential offered, it really is only a matter of time before we see these capabilities offered on the market.

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