Possibilities for 3D Printed Inflated Material on the Horizon

By | July 21, 2015

Sometimes I feel like the 3D printing industry is starting to plateau and level out, with commercial 3D printers starting to get a little stale and the features listed remaining more or less sedentary with only a few differences between machines. It’s mostly a battle of precision and performance. Sometimes though it seems we overlook how we can rework the entire system instead of these countless iterations of repetition, this concept wasn’t overlooked by Fergal Coulter of Nottingham Trent University who has created what can only be described as another dimension in the world of 3D printin: A printer that prints on the surface of an inflated material, such as balloons and pneumatic artificial muscles.

3d printed inflatable 2 The printer has some of the strangest features, it starts with a process of using a fine nozzle to spray silicone across the surface of a black spindle; thinly layer by layer. After coating a heat lamp is used to cure the silicone while the spindle rotates so it’s heated evenly, then an air compressor pumps the newly printed balloon full of air through the porous areas on the spindle. Then the fun begins, a 3D scanner scans the surface of the balloon and generates a map of the surface to create tool paths around, without this minute differences could cause faults with the print or cause the balloon poop because the print head tries to pass through it. Now for the part you’re all waiting for this 3D printer starts printing, using a series of tiled patterns to envelope the balloon in a mesh providing a much needed rigidity but with any other solution the surfaces couldn’t be bonded so closely without the use of chemicals or solvents to fuse them together.

The implications of this new process are limited in scope as of the moment but it’s a new imagining of a current tech not thought of before so if you think that you have an idea that seems impractical or limit at first you really should look into expanding upon it and getting it out into the world for everyone to tinker with and you’d be surprised at the uses you overlooked. It’s great to see whole new concept, before this I never even considered a printer that could print something that was inflatable not to mention printing something on top of it afterward. One of the more surprising things of this new tech is that this is a very new way of creating a fundamentally old device, Inflatable muscles are far from new, they were created in the the fifties under the name McKibben Artificial Muscles and later made more commercially by Bridgestone Rubber company. They were usually are sleeved in nylon and their basic functionality is the same as 3D printed ones; the force of the outward expansion when you fill them with air draws the material they’re sheathed in the be pulled back due to the longer distance it must travel around the now increased surface area of the material.

This one design brings so many different industries together, I’m glad that the people over at Nottingham Trent University took what on paper sounds a little silly and have made such a clean and almost seamless process for the biomedical field that delivers consistent . I hope this creates a new interest in artificial limbs using less conventional inner workings as opposed to the motorized mechanisms we’ve seen so far. This is where the future of printing is going, not some device for printing trinkets, it’s the manufactoring you need if you want to work around deviations and making small batches cost efficient.

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