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Want a PC this Xmas? Then print it

By Nick Easen for CNN

This prototype could spawn a new generation of 3D printers.
This prototype could spawn a new generation of 3D printers.

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Technology (general)
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

(CNN) -- Turning images on your PC into real-life computer chips with your home printer sounds like science fiction, yet the first prototype is already in operation.

Dubbed Santa Claus machines, these three dimensional printers "print" real objects instead of messages -- but never before have electronics been included in a product.

Soon fully assembled electric and electronic gadgets could be constructed in one go without having to add the components at great cost afterwards.

"I would think it would make a difference to product designers first -- people who normally build and test prototypes," John Canny of the University of Berkeley team who developed the 3D-printer told CNN.

The technology "prints" layer upon layer of conducting and semi-conducting polymers at the same time building up the gadget.

Therefore, the housing of the device can be filled with circuitry during the printing process -- in fact the object itself becomes the circuit and vice versa.

"Flexonics, could considerably shorten design cycles by building function as well as form into prototypes," he adds.

The integration of flexible materials with electronics has been dubbed "flexonics" and could do away with the conventional flat printed circuit board.

Revolutionize manufacture

Printers may not be the best term for this type of machine, which is only at the test stage. But these devices could be poised to eventually print light bulbs to microchips.

It could also revolutionize design and the manufacture of complex embedded circuitry, as well as their distribution -- since goods could be produced anywhere with less hardware.

"Its most unique characteristic is that it enables a bio-morphic style of design, complexity is cheap, the style of machine made will look more organic than what we've become used to," says Canny.

Currently, there are no results to report of in terms of printed materials and finished devices, yet the research looks promising. "However, its reminiscent of desktop publishing, which was not all that easy to motivate pre-1980, adds Canny.

According to the Berkeley scientist, NASA are interested in its possibilities for long-term space missions.

Although they are currently not sponsoring the California-based program, NASA would like to be able to print spare parts in outer space instead of transporting a huge inventory on the shuttle.

Other uses include custom toys and the construction of artificial human limbs including sensors and moving parts. "It may be possible to build fairly complex movement and shape into devices -- but that's a long way off," Canny told CNN.

"But it also could mean that movement and sensing are almost free, so that a lot of mundane artifacts may "come alive," including furniture as well as window shades. And perhaps new kinds of room partition that create just the right barrier to sound, light and breeze," says Canny.

Primitive and new

Although still somewhat new and primitive, Santa Claus machines are already a big hit in engineering circles. They sculpt objects designed on the computer by piling layer upon layer of material such as starch, plastic or metal.

Commercially available devices developed by Massachusetts-based Z Corporation for instance disperse fine powder, then spray a liquid from an ink-jet print head to bind it before starting the next layer.

"We successfully installed our proprietary 3D printers in literally dozens of industries... including the footwear, consumer appliances, military defense and education markets," Marina Hatsopoulos, CEO of Z Corp. in a statement.

Yet no one, aside from the U.S.-based Berkeley crew, has yet to crack the printing of electronics. "I'll be happy if we can get a printed joint going... After that, we will try to make some very simple crawling critters," says Canny.

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