Aug 25, 2017 | By Benedict

Unitika, a Japanese advanced materials company, is developing a thermo-sensitive 3D printing filament. Objects 3D printed with the filament can be deformed by hand, since body temperature causes the polymer to soften.

For most 3D prints, you’d be pretty upset if the final object deformed at the touch of your hand. And in some cases, such a reaction would be absolutely disastrous.

But thermo-sensitive filament can also be incredibly useful. Medical device manufacturers like Torc2 are exploring the use of low-temperature filaments for special 3D printed splints, which could be molded by a doctor on a patient’s body, and a number of other companies are exploring similar technologies.

Enter Unitika, a Japanese materials and chemicals company that is developing an as-yet unnamed thermo-sensitive 3D printing filament that softens with “warm temperature such as human body or hot bath water.”

While Unitika doesn’t mention medical applications for its new material, it does emphasize the versatility of its polymer filament, as well as the fact that makers can apply “fine adjustment” and “precise and delicate finishing by hand” after printing.

This is an interesting feature too. While you wouldn’t necessarily want to print mechanical parts in a filament like this, the reworkability does open up really cool possibilities for models and artworks. For example, if your printer can’t handle super-fine resolutions (or if you just happen to be a master with a chisel), the ability to make small incisions, twists, and markings upon a 3D printed object really changes the way you can approach the whole process.

Process for Unitika's thermo-sensitive 3D printer filament

The news gets better still: Unitika says the shape of the models can be permanently fixed with high temperatures, i.e. with boiling water or an electric oven. This would be tricky for medical applications, of course, but for artworks and sculptures, it really makes the process and the filament a whole lot more appealing. Maybe somebody will even try making mechanical parts with it after all!

Makers might have doubts that a low-temperature would print properly on a standard machine. We’d want to see real evidence too (and we imagine some example prints will be released closer to the filament's launch), but the company claims that the filament feeds smoothly “without getting broken or getting soft.”

The forthcoming 3D printing material, which Unitika plans to commercialize some time next year at an unspecified price, will be available in 1.75 mm diameter, and should be printed at 190-220°C, on a print bed heated no higher than 45°C. (Unheated print beds are also fine.)

You can check it out at this year's TCT Show, September 26-28, in Birmingham, UK. 

It should be noted that Unitika is not the first company to make a filament that works in this way. Last year, for example, Adam Beane Industries launched its Cx5 sculptable 3D printing filament on Kickstarter. The material is marketed at sculptors because it can be reformed after printing.

Adam Beane Industries' Cx5 sculptable 3D printing filament

These types of filament are undoubtedly interesting, but there are other ways you can make adjustable 3D printed objects too.

Earlier this year, researchers at Saarland University in Germany developed something called Hotflex, a computer-controlled, 3D printable composite structure that allows 3D printed objects to be precisely bent and deformed after printing. The structure contains an inner layer that can be heated by an Arduino, a process that causes the structure to bend in a specified direction.

So forget static 3D printed objects for a while: the days of sculptable, malleable 3D prints are upon us.



Posted in 3D Printing Materials



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