It would seem that the University of Warwick researchers are getting tired of simply creating models and toys with their 3D printers. While they think it’s “great seeing the complex and intricate models of devices such as mobile phones or television remote controls” they are working towards being able to print electronics that actually function, not just models of them.
So they have set about creating a fairly simple and inexpensive material that they call “carbomorph”. It’s a conductive plastic composite that can be used in low-cost 3D printers that have been designed for home use. It allows the user to design electronic tracks and sensors in the 3D structure, which can then be hooked up to a circuit board.
So far they have used this material to allow objects to be printed with embedded flex sensors or touch-sensitive areas – like a button on a gaming console controller.
This means you can create a controller that fits perfectly into your strangely shaped hands. You could create a mug that can indicate how full it is. All from the comfort of your own home. I have to say it: it’s sounding more and more like a Star Trek replicator!
Next steps from here involve figuring out how to make the printing allow for much more complex structures – like those found in computers and smartphones. Once that does happen, you might just be able to produce your own Android phone that’s completely unique. No longer will we be beholden to what some company’s designer overlord decides is most aesthetically pleasing.
In the short-term, beyond creating awesome mugs, they hope that this new direction for 3D printing will allow for a new generation of engineers the luxury of a greater freedom. Advanced manufacturing technology that would have previously been difficult to bring into the classroom can now be introduced to students – allowing new engineers to become familiar with producing high-tech devices and products from an earlier stage in their career.
Another huge advantage of 3D printing electronics in the present is that customized sockets for connections to equipment can be printed instead of using conductive paints or glues.
Clearly the 3D revolution shows no signs of slowing down.