Nov.22, 2012

The University of Warwick researchers have created a simple and inexpensive conductive plastic composite that can be used to produce electronic devices using the latest generation of low-cost 3D printers designed for use by hobbyists and even in the home.

(Image credit: The University of Warwick)

The material, nicknamed 'carbomorph', enables users to lay down electronic tracks and sensors as part of a 3D printed structure – allowing the printer to create touch-sensitive areas for example, which can then be connected to a simple electronic circuit board.

So far the team has used the material to print objects with embedded flex sensors or with touch-sensitive buttons such as computer game controllers or a mug which can tell how full it is.

Characterisation of the conductive composite material produced.

a) an SEM image of a cut edge of the formulated conductive material, b) photograph showing a length of the composite being used to connect to an LED, (scale bar 5 mm) c) Large scale SEM image of the conductive material after passing through the 3D printer nozzle (inset) a reduced magnification SEM image showing the extruded material, d) photograph of 3D printed chess rook also being used to light an LED (scale bar 10 mm). | Image credit: The University of Warwick


3D printing of flex sensors.

ai) the CAD design of flex sensor, aii) the printed flex sensor, aiii) the printed sensor undergoing flexing, aiv) the resistance response of the sensor during flexing, bi) CAD design of the 3D printed 'glove', bii) the printed 'glove', biii) the printed 'glove' before flexing, biv) the printed 'glove' during flexing and bv) the resistance response of each finger during 5 flexings. | Image credit: The University of Warwick


3D printing of capacitive interface device.

a) the CAD design of the printed interface device and the simple circuit used to detect inputs, b) a photograph of the printed device, c) a macro image of the printed sensor pads (scale bar 5 mm), d) the capacitance of each printed sensor pad plotted against time e) an enlarged portion of the graph from part d showing the cross-sensitivity of each sensor pad. | Image credit: The University of Warwick


3D printing of capacitive ‘smart’ vessel.

a) the CAD design of the printed ‘smart’ vessel, b) the vessel during printing showing the embedded sensor strip, c) the completed vessel next to a £2 coin (coin is approximately 28 mm in diameter) and d) the capacitance response of the ‘vessel’ when water is added. | Image credit: The University of Warwick


The next step is to work on printing much more complex structures and electronic components including the wires and cables required to connect the devices to computers.

The research was led by Dr Simon Leigh in the Department of Engineering at the University of Warwick.

Dr Leigh said: "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 revolutionalise the way we produce the world around us, making products such as personal electronics a lot more individualised and unique and in the process reducing electronic waste.

"Designers could also use it to understand better how people tactilely interact with products by monitoring sensors embedded into objects.

"However, in the short term I can see this technology having a major impact in the educational sector for example, allowing the next generation of young engineers to get hands-on experience of using advanced manufacturing technology to design fairly high-tech devices and products right there in the classroom."

The printed sensors can be monitored using existing open-source electronics and freely available programming libraries.

A major advantage of using 3D printing is that sockets for connection to equipment such as interface electronics can be printed out instead of connected using conductive glues or paints.

The research was funded by the EPSRC project: Novel 3D Printing Technologies for Maximising Industrial Impact and by the EPSRC UK Research Centre In Nondestructive Evaluation.

This research is published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. The paper details how researchers made a simple conductive 'plastic' that can be used in one of the current generation of low-cost 3D printers.

The researchers have also donated one of their working 3D printed computer game controllers to the British Science Museum for display in their Antenna gallery. - The exhibit will hopefully spark the publics imagination for 3D printing and what we might be able to achieve with the technology.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology


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