3D printing of personal electronics

Scientists say they’ve created a new material that could allow people to print out custom-designed personal electronics cheaply at home.

The University of Warwick researchers say their conductive plastic composite can be used in the latest low-cost 3D printers to create, say, games controllers which perfectly fit a user’s hand.

The material, nicknamed ‘carbomorph’, lets users 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.

So far, the team’s used it 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.

“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,” says Dr Simon Leigh of the Department of Engineering.

“In the long term, this technology could revolutionalise 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.”

In the short term, he says, the technology could have a big impact in the educational sector. It could allow students to get hands-on experience of using advanced manufacturing technology in the classroom to design comparatively high-tech devices.