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Pushing the limits of 3D printing – a cross-HP Labs collaboration to create 3D printed wearables

By Simon Firth, HP Labs Correspondent — April 19, 2017

Research engineers Andrew Fitzhugh and Alex Ju

Research engineers Andrew Fitzhugh and Alex Ju

“HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology has the potential to offer capabilities that haven’t existed before, especially through its ability to vary both color and material strength at the same time with unprecedented accuracy,” notes HP Labs research engineer Andrew Fitzhugh.  

“So every now and then,” he says, “we try to do projects that explore the limits of the printers and materials we’re developing, just to see what’s possible.”

A recent example is a collaborative effort between researchers in HP’s Print Adjacencies and 3D Lab, where Fitzhugh is based, and colleagues from the company’s Immersive Experiences Lab that explores the impact 3D printing could have on wearables, a product category that includes jewelry, clothing, and items like watches, badges, and fitness trackers that have elements of technology embedded in them.

HP’s Multi Jet Fusion approach to 3D printing leverages the company’s 30-plus years of experience in inks and jettable agents, precision low-cost mechanics, and material science, and offers a path to securing unprecedented levels of control over material properties such as color, elasticity, conductivity, and, potentially, translucency at an individual voxel (the 3D equivalent of a pixel) level.

In the case of wearables, HP’s technology could provide a way to print complex, colorful, and fine-detailed accessories that are currently impossible to create. 

“When I’m designing for conventional metals and gems, I have to assume that each component in the design has only one color,” explains researcher Alex Ju, who trained originally in jewelry and metalsmithing and worked with Immersive Experiences Lab colleague Ji Won Jun to design the wearable prototypes.

“But the kinds of pieces we’ve made in this project can have color anywhere. Where you put the color also has no impact on how hard they are to create, so you have access to a new range of aesthetic possibilities for these kinds of items,” Ju says.

In addition to offering designers a new creative pallet to work from, the HP print process allows for complete customization. In the future, it might cost no more to print a million individually unique wearables than a million that are exactly alike.

“Jewelry is very personal,” observes Ju.  “3D printing gives us the opportunity to offer that at a mass manufacturing scale.” 

The project has spurred other potentially valuable insights for vendors of wearable items. At present, for example, jewelry making is a laborious process, requiring assembly from multiple individual parts. But the HP team’s experiments are helping them understand how pieces that are multi-jointed, and that feature areas of both flexibility and strength, can be created in a single unit.

“It suggests we have the potential to reduce manufacturing steps and really streamline and reduce the cost of the wearable manufacturing process,” says Fitzhugh.

The project is helping HP refine its own 3D print technology at a foundational level too. “Efforts like this can tell us where strength, color, or finish is important or not,” he says. “That helps us understand how we can further develop the technology to better meet needs of users.”

It also points to additional potential applications and uses for the technology – for ID bands, sportswear, or household accessories, perhaps – that hardware researchers don’t typically have the opportunity to explore. With that in mind, many of the wearables created during the collaboration are both able to move kinetically and contain electronic elements. 

“Alex is designing things that we would never have the bandwidth to think about or design expertise to create,” Fitzhugh says.  

That’s likely to prove valuable when the next generation of HP 3D print technologies become commercially available.

“Designers in many fields, are not used to creating with the freedom that this technology can give them,” says Ju. “This work tells us a lot about what needs to happen to develop an ecosystem in which people can take full advantage of the capabilities we’re hoping to provide.”