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Students build a 7-foot (213cm) tall 3D printer for weaving ultra-lightweight structures with fibrous materials
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PRINTERS
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By Simon | 3Ders

Known more for their innovative industrial design program than developments in digital fabrication for product design applications, California College of the Arts has joined MIT's Media Lab in helping to advance the near-future of additive manufacturing as of late.

One such example, which was designed in their Digital Craft Lab by students Prerna Auplish, Evan Bowman, and Ryan Chen, is the Space Weaver. The 7-foot (213cm) tall 3D printer is designed to create ultra-lightweight woven structures with fibrous materials rather than the more typical hard plastics seen in traditional 3D printers.

Led by instructors Michael Shiloh and Jason Kelly Johnson of Future Cities Lab, the students utilized a 3-axis gantry system, similar to Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), for creating a platform that creates objects made from carbon fiber and fiberglass.

With a maximum build height of 5-feet (152cm), objects printed on the Space Weaver are produced using a significantly higher strength-to-weight ratio that results in zero waste and requires no support material.

Designed and fabricated over the course of a class in less than 8 weeks, the goal of the project was to explore the potential in printing woven structures in fibrous materials for a variety of construction applications.

During the two-month build period, the students had to approach the Space Weaver project with three different skillsets: machine building, programming and material science.

For the machine, the students had to build a support frame and build plate (no small feat when the machine is 7-feet tall), along with mechanical components, CNC gantry, electronics and spools for the material. The team chose to use a Shapeoko 2 CNC rather than traditional 3D printer mechanisms due to its ability to be modified for a larger build space and its durable construction quality.

One of the more significant challenges of building the machine was centered around the unique spool design, which unlike traditional 3D printers, required multiple spools similar to an industrial sewing machine. Additionally, the lightweight properties of the material meant that there was little-to-no support for the underlying printed material.

"Spool design proved to be tricky for this machine, and throughout the course of the semester we went through numerous different designs," said Bowman, one of the three students involved with the build. "Through experimenting, we discovered that the real challenge was to create a spool that would unwind freely as the machine lowered, while not unwinding under tension during the weaving process."

"The aluminum tube helps reduce some of this tension, and the spool orientation (a horizontal axel) allows a smooth and even unwinding action in the Z-direction." He explained. "A rubber band is added to each spool to allow a method of tuning to the spool tension. The rubber band wraps around the spool to the top of the thread carrier. Each spool uses six Neodymium ½" x ¼" disk magnets. Three are located in the spool itself, and another three in the base (under the glass). Each spool was 3D printed in PLA on a Flash Forge printer, with a three-layer laser cut acrylic base."

The programming for the machine was completed using TinyG and Grasshopper/Firefly scripts while the material research was focused on resin and fiber-based experiments.

Due to the short time span of the project, Auplish, Bowman, and Chen were unable to fully explore other ideas and improvements to the machine that they had envisioned. However, they hope to further explore how to include the use of conductive thread to weave circuits and a real time feedback system to improve on the CNC accuracy.

"We strongly believe that printing woven structures in fibrous materials has huge potential: such a structure can be constructed diagonally without needing support materials, and it can be made by combining different types of materials together, massively increasing the construction options." notes the team.

The students have also shared their build plans and all necessary programming scripts for anybody who might be interested in creating their own Space Weaver over on Instructables.

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