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This 3D Printer Can Make Metal Structures in Midair

As wearable electronic devices — such as glasses, watches, shoes, and even tattoos — become increasingly integrated with we regular ol’ meat bags, it’s more and more important for them to be customizable, durable, and flexible. But in order to change the rigidity of these devices, the way they are made has to change too. This is exactly why researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have built a 3D printer that can print complex metal structures in midair, without the need for a support surface.

Midair-3d-printer-GIF-1-05172016

This advancement in 3D printing, recently reported on by Gizmodo and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, means that delicate and detailed patterns of highly conductive metal wire can be printed, as lead researcher Jennifer Lewis puts it, “on the fly.”

Referred to as “laser-assisted direct ink writing,” the process works by having the 3D printer’s nozzle emit an “ink” of silver nanoparticles, which is annealed — or hardened with quick heating and cooling — immediately after it is emitted by a laser. The wire drawn out by the 3D printer can move fluidly through the x, y, and z axes in midair, and develop into curvilinear or otherwise complex patterns that would be much more difficult or even impossible to achieve with conventional 3D printers. Complex wire patterns can also be directly printed onto substrates made of different materials (such as plastic), which again speaks to the flexibility advantage.

Midair-3d-Printer-image-05172016Butterflies made using laser-assisted direct ink writing, without the use of support structures.

“This sophisticated use of laser technology to enhance 3D printing capabilities not only inspires new kinds of products, it moves the frontier of solid free-form fabrication into an exciting new realm…” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber in the project’s press release. It’s an exciting new realm that may or may not have us decked out like Locutus of Borg with wearable electronic devices.

What do you think about this new method of 3D printing metal in midair? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Images: Harvard University

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