Research embeds textiles in 3D printing for functional, flexible parts

Research published by Carnegie Mellon and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) has explored the use of a 3D printer to create stronger and more functional textiles. Using an Ultimaker 3D printer, the team 3D prints designs directly onto fabric and, in some cases, embeds fabric in between two layers of 3D printed plastic.

The paper detailing the research explains that while 3D printing is currently used to create rigid shapes and objects, there is potential to expand this to the fabrication of “rigid objects with embedded flexibility as well as soft materials imbued with additional functionality.”

Gif shows a polyester mesh embedded box. Images via ACM SIGCHI.

Selective stiffening 

The research refers to a concept of ‘selective stiffening’ which involves adding plastic to fabric in order to provide rigid parts in selected places and control its rigidity. This expands applications of the fabric and enables fabrics to become more functional. Additionally, the paper explains the potential for saving print time by using already fabricated textile materials.

May also reinforce the fabric with a thin layer of 3D printed plastic which is referred to as ‘shell printing’. By reinforcing fabric with 3D printing the researchers believe they can create an adequate replacement for fully plastic parts and subsequently save print time. This method also allows for large objects to be fabricated which can be larger than the 3D printer’s build plate.

Adhering plastic to fabric

The method involves direct FDM 3D printing of a range of different materials onto fabrics. The paper explains that there was a need for tinkering the printing settings to achieve the best results and found that, for example, PLA “often adheres better to fabric when extruded at a slightly higher temperature than typical.” The research team found that such temperatures “produces lower viscosity and facilitates a longer settling period for the plastic to cool and solidify, allowing it to partially seep into the fabric for a stronger bond.” Printing PLA directly onto fabric has also been explored by separate research into sustainable textile production.

The RIT and Carnegie Mellon researchers took this one step further by sandwiching fabric between two layers of plastic and explains the process,

When a fabric is not used as the first layer of a print but instead sandwiched the fabric between two layers of plastic, it will not normally adhere to the layer below it. If it should be adhered, the fabric must have holes, or interstices, for the melted plastic to flow through. 

The paper also identified the importance in preventing the fabrics from moving during the printing process. The team found double sided tape was the best solution to fix fabric in place so it doesn’t move while printing.

3D printed studs used by designer Alexis Walsh in her APEX coat which are attached with brass screws. Photo by Juliana Werring.

3D printing in fashion

Not only have the researchers developed an approach for creating flexible 3D printed parts for functional applications, the research could also expand the application of 3D printing in the fashion industry. Researchers reference this in the conclusion as they say their technique “opens new avenues for exploration in clothing-based input sensors and the de­sign of compliant mechanisms and other soft functional parts.” New York designer Alexis Walsh has used 3D printing studs in one of her latest pieces but did not print directly onto the fabric.

Using the novel textile embedding method, the research team created a number of innovative devices such as a watchband, a fabric lampshade, a wearable crown, textile input devices such as a button and also an actuated box. The polyester mesh embedded box uses strings and a 3D printed switch as controls for opening and closing. The paper concludes positively that,

Our techniques create objects that can meet a wider range of human needs by encompassing more pleasing materials and larger sizes than typical consumer-grade 3D prints.

Research paper is titled, ‘Stretching the Bounds of 3D Printing with Embedded Textiles’ and has been published by ACM. Authors include Carnegie Mellon University’s Michael L. Rivera, Jennifer Mankoff, and Scott E. Hudson. In addition to Rochester Institute of Technology’s Melissa Moukperian, and Daniel Ashbrook.

To stay updated with all the latest 3D printing news, subscribe to the most widely read newsletter in the 3D printing industry, follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook.

Featured image shows the Instron adhesion test of the embedded fabric 3D prints. Image via ACM.