Disney research leads to laser cutting and 3D printing combined

Disney Research has found a way of creating toys out of soft fabric using laser cutting and an additive process. The technology will provide customisable toy designs and could help increase the number and intricacy of electronically interactive devices on the market. Once the method is perfected, this could open a new revenue stream in low-cost laser cutters for fabrics and could add to the growing demand for laser cutting technology for soft materials.

Researchers Huaishu Peng, Jen Mankoff, Scott Hudson, James McCann, explained in their paper on the Disney Research website that there is two stages of production, each with a separate working platform. The first is an upside-down cutting platform with a vacuum table that holds the fabric in place to be cut; the second is the bonding platform located directly below.

As is typical for additive processes, a design is dissected into layers which are processed individually, eventually creating the finished product. In this application, off the shelf fabric is used and laser-cut layer-by-layer before being bonded together using an adhesive and a moveable iron. In order to provide support for overhanging structures, the team leaves a surrounding area of material which is manually removed after processing.

One advantage of using the additive method is that multiple materials can be used. For instance, by including a conductive material as one of the fabric layers, the researchers managed to produce a simple touch sensitive device. The research paper explained that a starfish design had been produced and embedded with a slider switch when connected to a microcontroller. The conductive fabric can also act as the wiring between electronic components. However, the team warned that short-circuiting could then become an issue. To overcome this, the group said they could either pause the printing and manually remove the extra conductive material. Alternatively, increasing the kerf of the laser cut would ensure a clean break in the material.

The paper said: ‘After connecting it with only two wires, the soft printed pad is ready to serve as a physical slider for interaction. One can imagine a more complicated 3D printed soft toy with multiple touch sensitive areas.’

In order to make the process viable, the team said that it needs to be faster. Currently, this is held up by the time taken to join the fabric layers as the iron must be held for around 7 seconds to ensure a strong bond.

While this method is not yet ready for the market, it is yet another example of a company aiming to increase the amount of customisation available to its customers. In the paper, the researchers referenced the growing popularity of websites such as Etsy where consumers look for bespoke products, or makeyourownjeans.com where clothes can be designed by the customer before being tailored by the company.

A lot of the products on Etsy are hand-made, evidence of the desire from consumers to have their own bespoke creations. And, while this Disney Research application is not a typical 3D printing process, the buzz surrounding 3D printing is either being helped by, or helping to create, this want for individualisation.

As this application note suggests, this drive is not just relevant to 3D printing technology. It would appear to be a good time to be a laser service provider as other advanced technologies, such as laser cutting, have a place as well. Affordable laser systems that could help this personalised revolution can only benefit from the ever-increasing want of the customer to get more hands-on.

As the technology advances in this direction, the question is who will be the first to fully capitalise on the market? There are already products available that are ready for technology forerunners, but who will make the most of the potential and create a system that is useable for everyday consumers?

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