3-D printers can do a lot of things — create low-cost prosthetic limbs, fashion clothes — but hair is a new concept. A team of enterprising researchers from Carnegie-Mellon University has broken 3-D ground by figuring out how to print plastic strands of varying thickness and length.
“Existing 3-D printed objects are stiff and rigid, so I wanted to extend what's possible,” explains lead researcher and graduate student Gierad Laput via e-mail. “I haven't seen hair or fur as an actual ‘property' for printed objects, so I thought that was an interesting avenue to address.”
Dubbed “furbricating” by the group (get it?), the hair-like consistency is achieved by “exploiting the stringing phenomena” that the 3-D printer offers. The rest of us might liken it to what happens when you touch a hot glue gun to something and then pull it back, revealing a slender string of glue. A-ha, right?
Nobody had thought of trying this with an existing 3-D printer before, says Laput. "Researchers have looked at printing soft objects, but their approach is more generic, for example building a new type of 3-D printer altogether. So instead, we just 'hacked' an existing 3-D printer and tested it beyond its limits."
The team also has developed an as-yet-unnamed prototype software that allows people to custom-design their coiffured figure. “Users can select which regions of the model they want hair to be printed on,” explains Laput. “Once defined, the user can then adjust parameters on how they want the hair to look,” he says, noting length, density and softness as several of the characteristics of 3-D hair that can be tailored.
While you can immediately see its benefits in fashioning a wig for your favorite troll doll, 3-D hair is hardly limited to whimsical action figures.
“People can introduce stiff bristles like those in toothbrushes, or flowy hair for actual paint brushes,” Laput says.
Ideally, this development will snowball into bigger and better things, down the road. “The technique for 3-D printing hair opens up the possibility for introducing fiber-like strands into 3-D models,” says Laput. “So, one day we might be able to print objects with fur-like textures, or even 3-D print Velcro.”
Meanwhile, when will you get your 3-D wig or toupee? Not just yet. “3-D printing a wig is both time-consuming and would require a huge 3-D printer,” says Laput. “So ideally, this technique is not necessarily targeted for those uses.” Unless your idea of an excellent hairdo mimics Lisa or Marge Simpson, that is.