May 16, 2016 | By Alec

As veteran makers will have doubtlessly noticed, the resolution and accuracy of 3D printers are constantly improving and smaller and more complex prints are becoming possible at an incredible rate. But one research group from the MIT Media Lab has just pushed that trend into overdrive. As part of their Cilllia project, they have successfully developed a way to program and 3D print hair structures of just 50 microns thick. What’s more, using nothing more than clever design solutions, these structures can be programmed to become adhesive or act as sensors and actuators.

This intriguing project was showcased at the Human-Computer Interaction (CHI) conference in San Jose last week, and has been realized by researchers Jifei Ou, Gershon Dublon, Chin-Yi Chen, Liang Zhou, Felix Heibeck and Hiroshi Ishii from the Tangible Media Group at MIT’s Media Lab. Called Cilllia 3D printed micro-pillar structures for surface texture, actuation and sensing, it’s essentially a completely novel way to 3D print hair structures through a computational platform.

As PhD student Jifei Ou explains to, Cilllia was actually inspired by hair in nature. Though human hair is currently mostly aesthetic in its purpose, hair is actually a very useful part of a create. Among others, it provides warmth, adhesion, locomotion, and even acts as a very useful sensor that detects movement in your vicinity. If harnessed by engineers, customizable hair structures could really add a lot to robotics, for instance.

Jifei Ou and his team therefore set out to construct a novel 3D printing platform for hair-like structures, something that was more challenging than it looks. For starters, CAD software is hardly suitable for creating thousands of hair strands efficiently. The MIT team therefore had to build their very own bitmap generating program that allows you to generate hairy structures very quickly. “We built a software platform to let one quickly define a hair’s angle, thickness, density, and height,” he explains. “With this method, we can 3D print super dense hair surface at micron density.”

In fact, the Cilllia hair geometry has a 50 micrometer resolution, and can have just about any possible hair shape. It can also be 3D printed on both flat and curved surfaces. This paves the way for a lot of new applications. For starters, it can be used to make 3D prints more detailed – that 3D printed rabbit can now finally have fur. Soft touch objects, such as customizable paint brush bristles, are also possible.

But the Cilllia hair structures can even be programmed to perform a far wider range of applications. The super fine surface textures it generates are, for example, perfect for creating mechanical adhesion; all you need are two precise interlocking hair patterns to create a bond. Through programming, other specific hair structures with specific adhesion properties can be easily realized for a variety of applications.

But the MIT researchers have also looked into a wide range of other possible options, as can be seen in the clip below. Perhaps the most impressive of all are the 3D printed hair movement actuators. For by only adding one vibration source to a printed object, they can enable the 3D printed hair to act as movement actuators that can be programmed with specific paths. This means that vibration can be used for a lot of different applications, of which (linear or circular) motors are just one example. The researchers have even used this method to 3D print a windmill that starts spinning once attached to a vibration source such as your phone.

What’s more, the MIT team has even mimicked the sensor properties of human hair. With the attachment of a single microphone, their hair surfaces suddenly become sensors that detect touch. Different swiping patterns can suddenly by detected. While Cilllia is still under development, this 3D printing platform could have a huge impact on smart design. It also serves as a reminder of how you can realize fantastic mechanical properties through nothing more than clever design solutions. You don’t always need electronics to instill functionality into 3D printing projects.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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