Electronics breakthrough allows parts to be 'printed' [Birmingham Post (England)]
(Birmingham Post (England) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Scientists in the Midlands have developed a new technology which could save on shopping trips - by allowing customers to print personal electronics straight from their computer.
The University of Warwick researchers have created a simple and inexpensive conductive plastic composite that can be used to print items like computer joypads and remote controls from relatively low- cost 3D printers.
The materials could also allow people to create objects like custom-designed MP3 players and mobile phones which perfectly fit their hand shape.
Dr Simon Leigh of the university's School of Engineering has been leading the project and said he had been inundated with interest from electronics manufacturers and hobbyists.
The material, nicknamed "carbomorph", enables users to lay down electronic tracks and sensors as part of a 3D printed structure - allowing the printer to create touch-sensitive areas for example, which can then be connected to a simple electronic circuit board.
"We aren't trying to reinvent electronics.
People need circuit boards, and they work very well, but the idea is we can put electronics in things that they don't put electronics in," he added.
"For instance, your light switch doesn't need to look like a light switch. It can be made to look like something else.
"The hurdles we are getting across now are printing things like the wires and connecting to the materials, which would allow us to improve the performance.
So far the team has used the material to print objects with embedded flex sensors or with touch-sensitive buttons such as computer game controllers or a mug which can tell how full it is.
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 to computers.
Dr Leigh said: "It's always great seeing the complex and intricate models of devices such as mobile phones or television remote controls that can be produced with 3D printing, but that's it, they are invariably models that don't really function.
"We set about trying to find a way in which we could actually print out a functioning electronic device from a 3D printer.
"In the long term, this technology could revolutionise the way we produce the world around us, making products such as personal electronics a lot more individualised and unique and in the process reducing electronic waste.
"Designers could also use it to understand better how people interact with products by monitoring sensors embedded into objects.
"However, in the short term I can see this technology having a major impact in the educational sector for example, allowing the next generation of young engineers to get hands-on experience of using advanced manufacturing technology to design fairly high-tech devices and products right there in the classroom."
Dr Leigh said products can be printed using commercially available printers costing less than Pounds 2,000.
However, he said he was unsure whether the work could lead to a spin-off business at this stage.
The printed sensors can be monitored using existing open-source electronics and freely available programming libraries.
A major advantage of using 3D printing is that sockets for connection to equipment such as interface electronics can be printed out instead of connected using conductive glues or paints.
The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council project.
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