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3D printer deposits electronic fibers on fabrics

By Brooks Hays
3D printer deposits electronic fibers on fabrics
Scientists used a 3D printer with special ink wells and a unique coaxial nozzle to deposit electronic threads onto fabric. Photo by Yingying Zhang/Matter

March 27 (UPI) -- To make wearable electronics, one group of researchers in China has developed a 3D printer that deposits electronic fibers onto fabrics.

Most current methods for the production of smart clothes, or wearable electronics, involve manually sewing electrical components into fabrics. The multistep processes are time and labor intensive, making them more expensive and more difficult to scale.

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Researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing decided to save time and money by printing electronic fibers onto fabrics, instead of incorporating the electronic components into the clothes.

"We used a 3D printer equipped with a home-made coaxial nozzle to directly print fibers on textiles and demonstrated that it could be used for energy-management purposes," Yingying Zhang, a chemistry professor at Tsinghua, said in a news release. "We proposed a coaxial nozzle approach because single-axial nozzles allow only one ink to be printed at a time, thus greatly restricting the compositional diversity and the function designing of printed architectures."

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The double nozzle allowed researchers to print a multilayer thread, composed of a conductive core and an outer insulating layer of silkworm silk. Scientists attached the injection syringes filled with the two inks to the coaxial nozzle and integrated the combination with a 3D printer.

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For the proof-of-concept tests, researchers used the 3D printing technology to print designs on squares of fabric. The approach worked, and it was cheaper and faster. But the technology's precision and the complexity of its designs are limited by the accuracy of the printer's mechanical movements, as well as the size of its nozzles.

"We hope this work will inspire others to build other types of 3D printer nozzles that can generate designs with rich compositional and structural diversity and even to integrate multiple co-axial nozzles that can produce multifunctional E-textiles in one-step," Zhang said. "Our long-term goal is to design flexible, wearable hybrid materials and electronics with unprecedented properties and, at the same time, develop new techniques for the practical production of smart wearable systems with integrated functions, such as sensing, actuating, communicating, and so on."

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Researchers described their 3D printing efforts in a new paper published this week in the journal Matter.

Last year, scientists at the University of California, San Diego used a 3D printer to produce stretchable electronics that can be integrated into smart clothes.

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