Need a cuddle in a hurry? A joint venture between Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research in Pittsburgh has led to the creation of a new type of three-dimensional printer that turns wool and wool-blend yarns into snuggly fabric objects such as hats, scarves, and even teddy bears. Project lead Scott Hudson, a professor in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, describes the resulting products as “reminiscent of hand-knitted materials.”

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“I really see this material being used for things that are held close,” Hudson says in a press release. “We’re really extending the set of materials available for 3D printing and opening up new possibilities for what can be manufactured.”

The machine uses a process similar to Fused Deposition Modeling, except that it extrudes yarn instead of plastic.

Like other 3D printers, Hudson’s contraption works off computerized renderings to make its objects, making it useful for both rapid prototyping and customizations. Operations-wise, the machine follows a process similar to Fused Deposition Modeling, except that it extrudes yarn instead of layers of melted plastic. A barbed felting needle attached to the printer head then punches the yarn repeatedly, binding individual fibers with the those in the layers below.

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Still, more work needs to be done. Hudson admits that his printer doesn’t achieve the same dimensional accuracy as a conventional 3D printer might because yarn is much thicker than the plastic deposited in FDM printing. The felt is also weaker than typical fabric, which means a reinforcing layer of nylon mesh must be incorporated during the printing process if the soft object is to be attached to a hard one.

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Although the current technique requires some assembly, since the printer only produces fabric objects at present, Hudson says it should be possible to design a printer than can output both fabric and plastic elements in a single fabrication.

“A number of researchers are looking at mixed materials in 3D printing,” he says. “That’s one of
the most interesting challenges now.”

+ Carnegie Mellon University

+ Disney Research