3D printed objects connect to Wi-Fi through plastic and without any electronics

Researchers from the University of Washington have created a variety of 3D-printed plastic objects that can collect data and communicate to the Wi-Fi connected devices without electronics, turning ordinary household items into IoT-connected systems.

The method used by the researchers to enable 3D-printed Wi-Fi is called ‘Wi-Fi backscatter’, which basically depends on electronic components to reflect or absorb radio signals from a Wi-Fi router.

“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, co-lead author of the research paper and UW electrical engineering doctoral student. “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.”

The research has yet to be peer-reviewed but you can read the paper here. The team presented its work at the Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGGRAPH Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Asia on November 30.

The researchers substituted the electrical components with printable springs, gears and switches using plastic, while the antennae in these 3D printed items are made of a plastic-copper conductive printing filament and embedded into the 3D printed object. Then, by using the backscatter techniques and antenna, the data was transmitted by reflecting radio signals emitted by a Wi-Fi router or other electronic device.

In other words, while the plastic devices don’t transmit any information, they do contain changeable patterns that hold embedded information and which a wireless electronic device like a Wi-Fi router can read.

The researchers can convert non-electrical items into useful Wi-Fi-connected tools. For instance, an attachment for laundry detergent that can detect when you are running out of soap, or a battery-free slider that controls music volume, or a water sensor that sends a notification on your smartphone when there is a leak, or a button that automatically places an online order for food.



Here’s more information from the paper:

“This paper asks the following question: can objects made of plastic materials be connected to smartphones and other Wi-Fi devices, without the need for batteries or electronics? A positive answer would enable a rich ecosystem of ‘talking objects’ 3D printed with commodity plastic filaments that have the ability to sense and interact with their surroundings. Imagine plastic sliders or knobs that can enable rich physical interaction by dynamically sending information to a nearby Wi-Fi receiver to control music volume and lights in a room. This can also transform inventory management where for instance a plastic detergent bottle can self-monitor usage and re-order supplies via a nearby Wi-Fi device. Such a capability democratizes the vision of ubiquitous connectivity by enabling designers to download and use our computational modules, without requiring the engineering expertise to integrate radio chips and other electronics in their physical creations. Further, as the commoditization of 3D printers continues, such a communication capability opens up the potential for individuals to print highly customized wireless sensors, widgets and objects that are tailored to their individual needs and connected to the Internet ecosystem.”

The researchers have published the objects as free-to-download CAD models. You can access them here.

Check out the video below that displays the creations made by the researchers:

Sources:ZDNet , 3Ders

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