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Fluffy Innovation: New CMU Printer Makes Teddy Bears

Most 3D printing technology deals only in plastic or metal, but a Carnegie Mellon University professor’s latest invention produces much softer results.

Scott Hudson, a professor in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, collaborated with Disney Research Pittsburgh to develop a 3D printer that prints in needle felt and yarn.

“This creates things that have a very different aesthetic,” Hudson said. “A really soft aesthetic.”

The printer, which looks like a sewing machine, can produce objects that are typically hand-knitted, including hats, scarves and even Teddy Bears. The machine simulates the process of needle felting, when a person presses a barb needle through bits of fibers, creating layers.

“What we’ve done is to use yarn as a fiber source, and been able to feed that in, and then we strike it with this barbed needle multiple times,” Hudson said. “It entangles it with what is there before. Layer by layer, we’re able to build up arbitrary shapes that are under computer control.”

Hudson said his printer can make “any geometric model you can create in the material.” 3D printers produce objects from computer designs.

“We have really just started to explore the breadth of things that could be done with this technology,” Hudson said.

The prototype sits on Hudson’s desk at Disney. It successfully operates, but can still be improved.

“The material that gets created is maybe not as robust as you might like for certain applications,” Hudson said. “I think there’s some question of whether things can be done to make the printed results stronger.”

According to a report from marketing research firm Canalys, the 3D printing industry brought in $2.5 billion in 2013, and is projected to jump to $3.8 billion this year. 

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