Printing in 3-D is all the rage, but it has, in my opinion, been lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, that all important spark….of electricity.
Not for long though, because scientists at the University of Warwick say they have invented a simple and inexpensive conductive plastic composite able to work in even today’s low-cost 3-D printers.
That means taking 3-D printing from just a fun exercise of arts and crafts, to actually being able to print yourself truly useful items like console game controllers and TV remotes. And let’s face it, who hasn’t ever lost a remote in the black hole down the back of the couch?
The material, nicknamed "carbomorph" allows users to build their designs with electronic tracks and sensors, so printers can print out devices with touch-sensitive areas which can then be connected to a simple electronic circuit board.
A press release from the university says the team -- led by Simon Leigh in the School of Engineering -- has already managed to print objects with embedded flex sensors and touch-sensitive buttons. In the process, the scientists have also been churning out game controllers and other cool, geeky products, like a mug which can tell how full it is.
Leigh shows off a working 3-D printed game controller
The team believes the next step is to work on printing much more complex structures and electronic components including the wires and cables required to connect the devices up to computers.
Of course another big advantage with printable electronics is that the sockets for connection to equipment, like the interface electronics, can be printed out instead of connected using conductive glues or paints.
Leigh said the research would, in the long run “revolutionalize the way we produce the world around us, making products such as personal electronics a lot more individualized and unique.” It would also reduce electronic waste, he said.
“Designers could also use it to understand better how people tactilely interact with products by monitoring sensors embedded into objects,” he added.
Meanwhile, Leigh believes that the short term benefits of his team’s invention could have a major impact in the educational sector, allowing kids and young engineering students “to get hands-on experience of using advanced manufacturing technology to design fairly high-tech devices and products right there in the classroom.”
The printed sensors, said the university, could be monitored using existing open source electronics and freely available programming libraries.
So, if you had access to the material and a 3-D printer, what electronic devices would you make? Let us know in the comments below.
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