3D printing of personal electronics could be on the horizon

Game controller
One of benefits of carbomorph is that electronic objects can be printed without the need for expensive extrusion equipment. This means that it will be possible for users to produce 3D printed objects in their homes.
Dr Simon Leigh
Scientists from the University of Warwick have created a new conductive plastic composite that is both simple and inexpensive. The team, whose work was funded by the UKs Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), developed the material – nicknamed carbomorph – for use within the field of 3D printing. Carbomorphs creators believe that it could pave the way for consumers to produce custom-designed personal electronics from the comfort of their own homes.

Carbomorph allows users to integrate electronic tracks and sensors within the structures of 3D printed objects. Devices so far created by the researchers include a personalised game controller and a mug that knows when its full. The team is confident that the new material will enable designers to print customised electronic devices that are more complex and functional than those that it has previously been possible to create.

In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, lead researcher Dr Simon Leigh from Warwicks School of Engineering outlined the thinking behind, and potential applications of carbomorph

What was the inspiration behind the design of this material?
The inspiration was simply to impart functionality into 3D printing. This has always been a frustration of mine in terms of objects produced by 3D printers. They look great but they dont actually do anything. These objects always seem to be models; a tendency that stems from 3D printings origins as a rapid prototyping technology. Our idea, therefore, was to try to inject some functionality into 3D printing in a simple manner.

In what ways does carbomorph lend itself to 3D printing? Which of its properties make it suitable for the production of more complex electronic devices?
One of benefits of carbomorph is that electronic objects can be printed without the need for expensive extrusion equipment. This means that it will be possible for users to produce 3D printed objects in their homes. Carbomorph can be used with 3D printers that are commercially available right now. Obviously, we are not trying to replace conventional electronics. Our material is not as conductive as a metal such as copper. People already produce circuit boards very effectively and very quickly. You could mail order a circuit board overnight if you really wanted to. There is no point trying to reinvent the wheel. Even so, carbomorph does give users the ability to put electronics where they wouldnt normally be found. For example, we put a capacity sensor inside a mug so that you can tell how full the mug is. You can imagine that an artist might design a sculpture, imbed touch sensors within its printed structure, and have people interact with their work. There are many potential applications.

One of the most exciting potential applications for carbomorph is the possibility of using it within an educational setting. What do you think young people will be able to learn from working with this material?
My colleagues and I made a computer game controller from carbomorph. I think that this, for example, might make an interesting project for a design and technology class. The pupils might wish to produce a controller that is a different shape, or that included a different button layout, than those of conventional devices. Carbomorph would give them a more complete idea of the design-to-product process; the path that somebody has to take in order to create a finished product.

You have said that this material is compatible with 3D printers that are currently available. How long do you think that it will be before people begin producing personalised electronics within their own homes?
I cant really say. I think that there will need to be a significant shift in the habits of consumers in order for this behaviour to become more common. At present, people much prefer to purchase their electronic devices from existing retailers. It would take a complete change in mindset for consumers to start producing their own electronics. If and when this change will happen, I cant say for sure. The technology is there; it just depends on demand.

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Could this apply to other senses? I noticed that I can often distinguish a smell just by holding an object even if I can't see it or know what it is. many years ago I used to work in a candle store and stocking shelves I wouldn't have to look at the candle I could reach out touch it and put the candle on the shelf because I could smell it with my hands.


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