Surface conductors on vacuum formed parts appear in many hacks, from cosplay armor to 3D touch pads and smart objects. But making them has always been painful. Either they had to be hand painted after forming, which looked sloppy and was labor intensive, or they had to be printed with some difficult to use stretchable ink tech. [Freddie Hong] and his group have another solution, using tech most hackers already have – a 3D printer and a vacuum former.
They 3D print the traces with conductive PLA filament directly onto a base plastic sheet, and then vacuum form the whole thing. The filament is happy to deform when heated – it’s printer filament.
We like this process. We’ve found conductive filament isn’t reliably resistive across vertical layers, but is reliable in the XY plane. Their method only requires one layer. Also, they suggest 3D printing a layer of non conductive PLA atop most of the conductor, like a PCB solder mask.
Conductive filament has a fair bulk resistance. They suggest electroplating it before applying the top mask layer. They also are exploring 3D printing logos, stripes, and such with colored filament, or even making surface detail like rivets on model parts or adding thickness where the plastic thins during vacuum forming.
Designing the 3D print requires guessing what bit of plastic sheet ends up where in the vacuum formed final part. His group used a commercial program, t-sim, to do the prediction and Grasshopper to import the result into Rhino3D. This seems a lot for a home hacker. Drawing lines on a test sheet and vacuum forming seems simpler.
Thanks to [howielowe] for the tip.