SEOUL, April 17 (UPI) -- Most plastic is pretty hard -- not ideal for making soft, squeezable toys and playthings for little ones. New technology from Disney aims to solve the problem.
Scientists at Disney Research, Carnegie Mellon University and Cornell University have designed and built a 3-D printer that constructs objects out of layers of fabric, not plastic. The newly developed machine can make lovable bunnies, balls, dolls, cellphone cases -- anything, really -- all made out of soft, squishy layers of woven thread and yarn.
"Today's 3-D printers can easily create custom metal, plastic, and rubber objects," Jim McCann, associate research scientist at Pittsburgh-based Disney Research, explained in a press release. "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."
The printer works by cutting pieces of fabric into proper shapes and stacking the different shapes to form a 3-D object. Each shape is cut loosely leaving excess fabric. The excess fabric acts as support as the shapes are stacked. Each layer is coated with a heat-sensitive adhesive. Once assembled, the object is heated to bind. Once bonded, the excess fabric is cut away.
In a recent demonstration, the printer constructed a bunny measuring 2.5 inches tall. The rabbit was formed by 32 layers of 2-millimeter-thick felt. It took 2.5 hours to print.
"The layers in the bunny print are evident because the bunny is relatively small compared to the felt we used to print it," McCann said. "It's a trade-off -- with thinner fabric, or a larger bunny, the layers would be less noticeable, but the printing time would increase."
The printer can incorporate two different types of fabric into an object. If fabric impregnated with wire is used, the printer can construct a product that conducts electricity. In another demonstration, the printer was able to build a smartphone case that channeled energy from the phone in order to illuminate an LED light.
Researchers unveiled their new technology at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, held this week in Seoul, South Korea.