FFF (Fused-Filament Fabrication) and FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) 3D printing works by melting thermoplastic, and then laying that melted plastic down on a build plate in layers. The plastic quickly cools and becomes solid again, which makes it possible to build up a three-dimensional part over time. Traditionally, the physical properties of those parts are the same as the specific material that’s fed into the printer — usually rigid plastic. But Michael L. Rivera and Scott E. Hudson have developed a technique that turns a regular FFF 3D printer into a textile electrospinning machine.
Electrospinning is a process for producing thin polymer fibers by using electrostatic forces to draw the fibers out from molten plastic. Electrospinning machines are highly specialized, and can produce very fine fibers. Those fibers are useful in a number of applications, such as for vascular grafts in the biomedical industry. Because electrospinning machines are so specialized, however, they can be very expensive. River and Hudson have found a way to make it affordable, so electrospun textiles can be created at home.
To make this work, they performed a relatively simple modification to an inexpensive consumer FFF 3D printer. Namely, they added a high-voltage power differential between the hot end’s nozzle and the built plate. That’s controlled by an Arduino, and can be switched off for normal 3D printing. When it’s switched on, a substantial electrostatic field is generated. With the nozzle moved slightly away from the build plate and oozing a small amount of plastic, thin fibers are drawn out and pulled to the bed. The resulting textile feels like wool felt, and can be integrated directly into a 3D-printed part.