Dec 6, 2017 | By Benedict

University of Washington researchers have developed 3D printed plastic objects and sensors that collect data and communicate with WiFi-connected devices without electronics. The researchers have published the objects as free-to-download CAD models.

How do you communicate wirelessly with WiFi using only plastic? It’s a question that has long intrigued a group of researchers from the University of Washington, who have now come up with a clever way to turn seemingly ordinary 3D printed objects into fully connected smart devices. Most impressively of all, the objects don’t require any electronics.

In a research paper that was presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGGRAPH Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Asia, the researchers explain how plastic 3D printed objects can communicate with commercial WiFi receivers, turning ordinary household items into IoT-connected systems.

“Our goal was to create something that just comes out of your 3D printer at home and can send useful information to other devices,” says Vikram Iyer, co-lead author of the research paper and UW electrical engineering doctoral student.

The secret to these unusual plastic objects is the use of backscatter techniques, which allow devices to exchange information. The process involves using an antenna to transmit data by reflecting radio signals emitted by a WiFi router or other electronic device.

In other words, while the plastic devices don’t broadcast any information, they do contain changeable patterns that hold embedded information and which a wireless electronic device like a WiFi router can read.

The antennae in these 3D printed items are made of a plastic-copper conductive printing filament, and embedded into the 3D printed object.

What this means is that the researchers can turn non-electrical items into handy WiFi-connected tools: a laundry detergent lid that detects when you’re out of soap (and places an order for a replacment), a battery-free slider that controls music volume, or a button that automatically places an online order for food, for example.

These devices and sensors use physical motion to gather information. Gears and springs in the 3D printed object are triggered by actions like pushing a button or moving a slider, and these mechanical changes trigger a conductive switch to intermittently connect or disconnect with the antenna, changing its reflective state in the process.

These simple little cogs and springs can even calculate things automatically, such as the amount of detergent left in a bottle, using binary data.

“As you pour detergent out of a Tide bottle, for instance, the speed at which the gears are turning tells you how much soap is flowing out,” explains senior author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “The interaction between the 3D printed switch and antenna wirelessly transmits that data.”

Other 3D printed tools made by the researchers include a wind meter, a water flow meter, and a scale, as well as a test tube holder that can measure the amount of liquid in a test tube.

Static information—things like barcodes and instructions—can also be embedded into 3D printed objects using a plastic-iron filament. This could feasibly allow for quick inventory checks in shops and other environments.

For non-automatic tasks that require human input, the researchers also 3D printed various WiFi controls such as buttons, knobs, and sliders, all of which can be customized to communicate with other smart devices.

Taken as a whole, the researchers say their range of 3D printed objects, sensors, and controls can be combined to form an ecosystem of “talking objects.”

And that, it seems, is how you communicate with WiFi using only plastic.

The research paper, “3D Printing Wireless Connected Objects,” was authored by Iyer, Gollakota, and Justin Chan. It can be read here.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Tom McBaum wrote at 12/13/2017 4:51:27 PM:

Question about the first photo: Do the prints have to be that terrible looking?

That's me wrote at 12/9/2017 11:52:35 PM:

Yep, all you need is a WIFI transmitter emitting a signal that the 'printed' device can modulate.

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