However, the process is not without its limitations and currently there are still things that simply can’t be done using most 3D printing services – such as creating electronic equipment and full blown gadgets. Excitingly though, this might all change soon thanks to research being done at The University of Warwick.
‘The Second 3D Printing Revolution’
Essentially, researchers have managed to create a plastic composite that can be used in electronic devices. This composite is simple and inexpensive and can be used with the current generation of low-cost 3D printers, meaning that there’s nothing to prevent it from finding itself on sites like Shapeways in the near future.
This material has been nicknamed by researchers as ‘carbomorph’ and will allow users to add electronic tracks and sensors to their 3D parts, which can be later integrated with circuit boards and power sources if necessary. Providing proof of concept, the team themselves have created several designs using the new technique – including a touch sensitive computer game controller and a mug that can recognise how full it is.
In future, the team hope to experiment with more complicated structures and components – such as wires and cables that could conceivably be used to connect the devices to the computer.
According to Dr Simon Leigh, “It’s always great seeing the complex and intricate models of devices such as mobile phones or television remote controls that can be produced with 3D printing, but that’s it, they are invariably models that don’t really function. We set about trying to find a way in which we could actually print out a functioning electronic device from a 3D printer.”
In the long term, this technology could completely change the technology industry, and we might even someday see a time when we buy our phones and other devices from indie developers online, rather than from big companies like Apple and Samsung. There’s a little way to go before this becomes a reality though; so what does it mean for us in the short term?
One potential application is education. For teaching children and hobbyists the basics of electronic engineering and circuit design, this could be an invaluable tool. Likewise, it’s almost certain to give rise to a range of smaller gadgets once the 3D printing community get their hands on it. Of course, we’re going to see custom made games controllers, remote control cars and toys – but the most exciting uses will be the ones that we can’t possibly expect. Because that’s what happens when manufacturing goes open source. Things change at an incredibly accelerated rate.
The full study can be found in the open-access journal ‘PLOS ONE’ and is titled: A simple, low-cost conductive composite material for 3D printing of electronic sensors.