3D printing is turning kid-friendly as two separate research teams funded by Disney discovered they can use 3D printers to create soft, fuzzy teddy bears and funky-looking interactive speakers.

Backed by Disney Research Pittsburgh, Professor Scott Hudson of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at the Carnegie Mellon University developed a new kind of 3D printer that uses felting yarn in place of plastic or metal spools to create layers of deposits one on top of the other.

The device, which looks like a cross between a 3D printer and an embroidery machine, works in a manner similar to fused deposition modeling (FDM), the principle used in entry-level 3D printers. In FDM, spools of plastic are fed into the machine and melted. The printer head then expels the material in a thin line into a layer, creating additional layers until the object's desired shape is formed. While cooling, the layers of melted plastic then adhere to one another to create a new item.

With Hudson's new printer, the printer uses felting yarn instead of plastic spools. The printer head features a barbed felting needle that fastens the yarn to the layers already created below.

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

These materials include clothes, soft accessories such as hats and scarves, parts for soft robots and, of course, huggable teddy bears. Similar to regular 3D printers, Hudson's felting printer can print out objects based on computerized designs.

It is, however, not without its limitations. As Hudson noted, yarn is thicker than the lines of plastic used in conventional 3D printers, which makes the felt layers less accurate than the finer layers of a 3D-printed object made from plastic. Felt is also not as strong as regular fabric. For a teddy bear, that is no problem, but for other applications, such as a wind-resistant hat, for example, the felting printer could use some upgrade.

In the meantime, another team of researchers at Disney Research Pittsburgh discovered that they can create one-piece speakers by using a little-used technology developed in the 1930s.

Researchers Yoshio Ishiguro and Ivan Poupyrev were able to create 3D-printable speakers in the form of a spiral and a rubber duck that can emit sound from any part of the surface.

The researchers used electrostatic speaker technology to create a printer with a membrane sitting between two electrically conductive surfaces. When sound hits these surfaces, the air between them and the membrane becomes electrically charged, thus producing sound.

Touching the surface of the speakers will not affect the sound quality. The speakers can also emit high-frequency sounds up to 60 decibels, making them useful in gaming systems that feature location tracking for interactive play.

Although the researchers used a conductive paint to create the conductive surface, they believe that 3D printing advancements combining plastic and conductive materials could mean the process can be automated in the near future.

"In five to 10 years, a 3D printer capable of using conductive materials could create the entire piece," said Ishiguro. 

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