HP Labs Experimenting with Making 3D-Printed ‘Wearables’

HP Labs’ research engineers Andrew Fitzhugh and Alex Ju

HP Inc. has discussed a lot about how its Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers – with their ability produce parts of exceptional strength and accuracy – are designed for prototyping and parts-making in industries such as auto-making – but recently HP researchers put HP’s 3D-printing technology to another application: creating “wearables” such as jewelry.

HP Labs research engineer Andrew Fitzhugh explained: “HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology has the potential to offer capabilities that haven’t existed before, especially through its ability to vary both color and material strength at the same time with unprecedented accuracy. So every now and then we try to do projects that explore the limits of the printers and materials we’re developing, just to see what’s possible.”

A recent example is a collaborative effort between researchers in HP’s Print Adjacencies and 3D Lab, where Fitzhugh is based, and colleagues from the HP’s Immersive Experiences Lab that explores the impact 3D printing could have on wearables, a product category that includes jewelry, clothing, and items like watches, badges, and fitness trackers that have elements of technology embedded in them.

Currently, HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers only use nylon material to create objects, although in the future, it’s state that it’s seeking to extend that to other materials, such as plastics, ceramics and possibly metals, all of which would be particularly interesting to use for creating wearables.

With jewelry, HP says its technology could provide a way to print “complex, colorful, and fine-detailed accessories that are currently impossible to create,” such as the necklace below:

A 3D-printed necklace created by an HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer.

Researcher Alex Ju, who originally trained in jewelry and metal-smithing and worked with HP Immersive Experiences Lab colleague Ji Won Jun to design various wearable prototypes, explained: “When I’m designing for conventional metals and gems, I have to assume that each component in the design has only one color. But the kinds of pieces we’ve made in this project can have color anywhere. Where you put the color also has no impact on how hard they are to create, so you have access to a new range of aesthetic possibilities for these kinds of items.”

HP says that in addition to offering designers a new creative pallet to work from, the HP print process allows for complete customization. In says that, in the future, it might cost no more to print a million individually unique wearables than a million that are exactly alike.

“Jewelry is very personal,” observes Ju. “3D printing gives us the opportunity to offer that at a mass-manufacturing scale.”

HP says the project has spurred other potentially valuable insights for vendors of wearable items. For example, jewelry-making is a laborious process, requiring assembly from multiple individual parts. But the HP team’s experiments are helping them understand how pieces that are multi-jointed, and that feature areas of both flexibility and strength, can be created in a single unit.

“It suggests we have the potential to reduce manufacturing steps and really streamline and reduce the cost of the wearable manufacturing process,” says Fitzhugh.

The project is said to be helping HP refine its own 3D print technology at a foundational level too. “Efforts like this can tell us where strength, color, or finish is important or not,” Fitzhugh says. “That helps us understand how we can further develop the technology to better meet needs of users.”

Fitzhugh says other applications could include 3D-printing ID bands, sportswear, or household accessories – items that hardware researchers don’t typically have the opportunity to explore. Many of the wearables created during the collaboration are both able to move kinetically and contain electronic elements.

“Alex is designing things that we would never have the bandwidth to think about or design expertise to create,” Fitzhugh says.

“Designers in many fields, are not used to creating with the freedom that this technology can give them,” says Ju. “This work tells us a lot about what needs to happen to develop an ecosystem in which people can take full advantage of the capabilities we’re hoping to provide.”

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