3D Printed Fabric Stiffens On Demand

Researchers in Singapore and at CalTech have developed a 3D printed fabric with an interesting property: it is generally flexible but can stiffen on demand. You can see a video about the new fabric, below.

The material consists of nylon octahedrons interlocked. The cloth is enclosed in a plastic envelope and vacuum-packed. Once in a vacuum, the sheet becomes much stiffer and can hold many times its own weight.

Presumably, the idea would be to allow the material to flex in the plastic envelope until there was a need for the increased rigidity, and then remove the air. Of course, there are a lot of practical problems with that. If the envelope is no longer air tight, for example, the operation will fail. It is also hard to rapidly remove the air from the bag to make, say, something like Batman’s cape which was a comparison the researchers drew.

The fabric works using something called “jamming transition” that causes particles to switch from a fluid-like state to a rigid state. This is a well-known principle but isn’t practical with solid particles. The
3D printed hollow structures are much lighter. In addition to nylon, the team also experimented with aluminum fabric and it showed similar results, enhanced by the metal’s strength as you would expect.

It looks like the design would be simple enough to replicate, and perhaps there are clever ways to overcome the obstacles for practical use of this material.

20 thoughts on “3D Printed Fabric Stiffens On Demand

  1. Similar in use to what is used to transport wounded people: a bag filled with styrofoam balls, when the air is removed from the bag it hold shape and becomes stiff. This thing is a bit different since it´s a layer instead of just being a bag of balls, but could be used in the same way and likely for the same use.
    Could be used also why not to hold complex and / or fragile parts to be machined / worked on

    1. For machining delicate parts you can use polycaprolactone.
      This is a quite strong plastic, similar to nylon, but it melts at around 65 degrees centigrade. You can put it in hot water, and the heat transfer from the plastic is so low that you can hold the molten plastic in your hand and mold it around parts. Afterwards you can put your work piece in hot water to remove the plastic again.

        1. That’s less of a problem if there’s moisture, the way you get if you melt it in hot water. OTOH, that glue-like property can also be quite useful with a dry heat source like a heat gun.

  2. This reminds me of an article from a while back about stuffing coffee grounds in a balloon and using it as a grasping tool by applying vacuum.
    I don’t recall where or when I saw the article, might have even been in print; I suspect it might have been an MIT thing. I’ve kept the concept in my head as a useful solution for problems that have never presented themselves.

  3. This happens to most things I’ve put into vacuum bags: lettuce, bed sheets, t-shirts, random camping gear, etc… The only difference here is they used a bunch of time 3d printing something to demonstrate the effect.

    1. The only discernible difference I can see is that random items in a bag can shift into clumps. For example coffee grounds in a flat bag held horizontally would “pool” toward the middle. The printed structure insures that you will have a consistent flat surface when hardened.

      1. Or.. you know, the shape being little triangles? The same shapes used to support roofs? Yes, things go harder, but not hard enough to support the amount of weight this does.

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