Your next shirt might have an MP3 player integrated into the fabric!

Nano Dimension DragonFly Electronics and PCB 3D Printer.
Nano Dimension’s DragonFly 2020 3D Electronics and PCB 3D Printer.

Israeli 3D printer and 3D printed electronics manufacturer Nano Dimension recently completed tests on a new process that successfully 3D-printed conductive materials onto textiles. The pre-treated fabric had the conductive pattern printed on it using Nano Dimension’s DragonFly 2020 3D Printer and its AgCite Silver Nanoparticle conductive ink. After collaborating with a leading European textile company, Nano Dimension developed a process to create functional electronics and sensors that were fully integrated into textiles. In other words, the same materials used to 3D-print flexible PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards) can now be 3D printed onto textiles!

The same materials used to 3D-print flexible PCBs shown here can now be 3D printed onto textiles.
The same materials used to 3D-print flexible Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) can now be 3D printed onto textiles.

During testing, Nano Dimension 3D printed several different patterns onto the fabric in order to simulate real-world uses and conditions. For example, they tested for conductivity, elasticity, touch and rubbing. The company said that the results of the tests proved that their silver conductive inks were capable of matching the elasticity and material properties of the fabric. Their 3D printing technology was able to create “smart” functional fabrics that could be worn, folded and stretched without damaging or compromising the integrated electronics.

Major challenges

However, when it actually comes to actually integrating electronics and conductive elements into real textiles, there are still major hurdles. Textiles with integrated electronics or conductive elements are usually too delicate, too cumbersome or stiff, usually require an external battery pack, or can’t be washed or treated like traditional clothing. However, thanks to 3D printing technology, textiles that can be fully integrated with electronics and sensors are destined to become a reality. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but more a question of when, say the experts.

Possible applications

nanodimensions2-inWhile this technology is still experimental, it opens the door to producing a range of functional, smart textiles that can be used in a wide variety of applications. These could include smart bandages that can monitor a patient’s vital signs without cords, ultra-thin virtual-reality gloves, clothing with integrated electronic devices such as MP3 players, and sportswear that monitors and manages body temperature.

Experts tell us that electronics in the future are going to be more connected than ever before thanks to technologies such as this – and will indeed be manufactured to communicate with each other via the Internet and controlled with a smartphone or other similar wireless devices.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While this type of technology is absolutely fascinating and exciting, sorry folks, I don’t think I’ll be trying on underwear with embedded printed electronics any time soon. Shirts maybe. Undergarments….nooooooo!)

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.