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3D Printed Wireless Connected Objects Work Without Batteries

Picture of Bulent Yusuf
by Bulent Yusuf
Dec 6, 2017

With embedded antennas that reflect surrounding signals, these 3D printed wireless connected objects don’t need power to transmit data.

Boffins at the University of Washington have devised 3D printed wireless connected objects that operate without conventional power sources. Remarkably, they did it using commercially available 3D printers and Wi-Fi receivers.

Researchers have 3D printed plastic objects capable of communicating wirelessly with other smart devices, without the need for electronics.

The technique is to 3D print gears, springs and switches which interpret motion into information that can be sent via antenna. In one example, the team created an anemometer — which measures wind speed — and attached it to a gear. When the gear spins, the teeth connect with an antenna embedded in the model.

The antenna is printed from Electrifi’s conductive copper filament, so it can “reflect” ambient Wi-Fi signals to a Wi-Fi receiver. The shape of the gears and the speed at which they move encode the digital data. Moreover, because the gear will spin faster in a stronger wind, the signal transmission would also be more rapid.

“Our goal was to create something that just comes out of your 3D printer at home and can send useful information to other devices,” says Vikram Iyer, a graduate student on the project.

“But the big challenge is how do you communicate wirelessly with Wi-Fi using only plastic? That’s something that no one has been able to do before.”

They created their 3D models using OpenScad, and used Simplify3D as their slicer to convert STL files exported from OpenScad into GCODE files that are readable by 3D printers. The 3D printer they used is a MakeIt Pro-M.

3D Printed Wireless Connected Objects are a World First

A paper on the 3D printed wireless connected objects was recently presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGGRAPH Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Asia.

The anemometer is impressive in itself, but the researchers didn’t stop there. They also fabricated a trio of widgets — a button, a knob and a slider — that operate on the same principle and can talk to other smart devices.

Plus, they invented two custom smart objects. Firstly, a detergent bottle with an attached flowmeter to track the amount of detergent left. When it gets low, it can place an order for a fresh bottle, just like a DIY Amazon Dash Button.

The second smart object is a test tube holder that can measure the amount of liquid test tubes contain, and track inventory accordingly.

“How do you communicate wirelessly with Wi-Fi using only plastic? That’s something that no one has been able to do before.”

Finally, the team were able to print iron into 3D objects into custom patterns for reading by a magnetometer app. They used magnetic iron PLA from ProtoPasta to print the ferromagnetic segments of each model, and NetFabb Basic to slice the STL file into different sectors.

The use case here would be to convey significant information about the object, for example intellectual property protection.

“It looks like a regular 3D printed object but there’s invisible information inside that can be read with your smartphone,” says Justin Chan, another student on the project.

Intrigued? Curious? Eager to try this at home? Then it so happens that you’re in luck. The team has also made a selection of their 3D models available to the public.

Source: University of Washington

3d printed wireless objects

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