Close-up photo circuit plate. Source: Andrey Shchekalev/
Close-up photo circuit plate. Source: Andrey Shchekalev/

In 2013 J.C. Karich 3D printed the body and jack of a set of headphones1. The speakers were created by manually coiling copper wire around a groove that had been printed into the casing. At the time of printing, the ability for a 3D printer to be able to embed wire into plastic was not yet viable. However, this may change in the near future due to the creative endeavors of people in the 3D printing world. 

The RepRap 3D printer is capable of replicating all of its parts that are made of plastic. However, to reach the goal set by the RepRap Project and mirrored in the creation of the headphones by Karich, the printer must be able to completely replicate its self. To accomplish this, a 3D printer must be able to print using several additional materials including, electrically conductive materials, in particular copper wire. Ed Sells, one of the lead developers of the RepRap 3D printer wrote in his Ph.D thesis that the “remaining challenges for pure self-manufacture of the RepRap’s own parts, the most difficult to self-manufacture would be ‘electronic components, motors, conductive cable, solenoids and the heating element.’”2

After the Foresight Institute announced the Gada Grand Prize of $80,000 and an interim prize of $20,000 to motivate the development of a printer with capabilities above and beyond the current RepRap 3D printer, Jacob Bayless, Mo Chen and Bing Dai from the University of British Columbia Engineering Physics department decided to take up this challenge using the RepRap 3D printer as the printer of choice. 

On April 12, 2010 Bayless, Chen and Dai published a paper explaining the process they went thru to invent a wire-embedding tool head called the “SpoolHead” which is an accessory that can be added to a RepRap 3D printer. “In this design, the wire-printing mechanism uses a servo-actuated mechanical pencil to insert metal wires into the heated surface of a printed thermoplastic part. The wires are then to be cut by a solenoid-actuated mechanism that shears the wire inside the main tube of the print head.”3 In addition to their published paper, they produced a video which explains their journey to create the “SpoolHead”. The video4 can be accessed HERE

Stratasys and Optomec have also joined forces to invent a way to embed wires in plastic. Their approach is for Stratasys to print the plastic part and Optomec to deposit the sensors and wiring. This method is called the Aerosol Jet process which is “capable of handling the entire range of materials classes required for Printed Electronic manufacturing: conductors, resistors, dielectrics/insulators and semiconductors, and also combinations of materials printed layer-wise to create differing functionality.”5

The challenge wire-embedded 3D printing has presented to the 3D world will soon be a thing of the past. In the near future there will be 3D printers and other inventions that can be completely replicated by printing out any given part.