A 3D printer for making soft, cuddly stuff

April 30, 2014

(Credit: Carnegie Mellon University, Disney Research Pittsburgh)

A new type of 3D printer developed by Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research Pittsburgh can turn raw wool and wool blend yarns into fabric objects that people might enjoy touching.

The device, which looks like a cross between a 3D printer and a sewing machine, produces 3D objects made of loose felt,  such as clothing, hat, and Teddy bears. It also might be used to produce parts for “soft robots” designed to touch or be near people.

Like other 3D printers, the machine can make objects by working directly from computerized designs. So it can be used for rapid prototyping of objects and to customize products, but the printer head feeds out yarn instead of lines of melted plastic.

A barbed felting needle attached to the printer head then repeatedly pierces the yarn, dragging down individual fibers into the yarn in the layers below, entangling the fibers and bonding the layers together. A layer of nylon mesh fabric must be incorporated during the printing process to provide reinforcement to prevent the material from ripping away at the attachment point.

The machine was developed by Scott Hudson, a professor in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, with Disney Research support.

A new type of 3D printer fabricates three-dimensional objects from soft fibers (wool and wool blend yarn). This printer allows the substantial advantages of additive manufacturing techniques (including rapid turn-around prototyping of physical objects and support for high levels of customization and configuration) to be employed with a new class of material.