3D printing seems to be everywhere these days. From the emergency room, where printed replacement limbs are now a reality, to construction sites using 3D printers to make concrete, this technology that once seemed like a far-fetched concept is now very much a part of everyday life. And now, you don’t even need your fancy electronics to connect these printed objects to WiFi, making it easier than ever to access the internet — no batteries required.
As it is, experts estimate that the number of devices that connect to the internet will rise from 13 billion to 50 billion by 2020. With the rise of “smart” tech (also known as “the Internet of Things,” or IOT), that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. More and more homeowners are seeking out smart technology in their homes, like features that allow them to keep the premises secure or even change the internal temperature with the touch of a button. Not only are these features more convenient, but they’ll often save people money. Considering that an old, mercury-based thermostat can increase a homeowner’s HVAC bill by up to 20%, it makes sense that residents would rather be comfortable for less effort and less money by using a smart thermostat.
Still, there are probably a lot of tech lovers who will be shocked and thrilled to learn that they don’t even need expensive gadgets to access the internet anymore. It’s a complex process, as 3D printing can be used to make only plastic materials, meaning printers can’t create WiFi chips. But researchers were able to create a design that includes a printed spring and gear which, when activated by liquid or air, turns and tightens. This action causes the teeth of the gear to connect with a 3D-printed antenna that’s made of conductive filament. This antenna then transmits and reflects ambient WiFi signals in binary language, and those signals can be decoded by a WiFi receiver. Researchers have also created buttons, knobs, and sliders that work in similar ways.
Researchers were then able to develop two smart objects using what they call “printed WiFi” — a detergent bottle that, with its attached flowmeter, can track the amount of detergent left in the bottle and reorder it when it reaches a certain low point and a test tube holder that measures the amount of liquid in the tubes and track inventory accordingly. They also developed a method to print iron into 3D objects in patterns that can be read by a smartphone’s magnetometer. This magnetometer can discern what an object is, who made it, and how a robot should interact with it.
The research team is making these models available to the public, which means that anyone who owns a 3D printer at home could benefit and even create similar objects of their own that could wirelessly communicate with smart devices. Although home 3D printers still aren’t considered the norm, they’re becoming more accessible — and with so many innovative options emerging, it’s likely that consumers may be enticed to make owning one a priority in the future. After all, who wouldn’t want to never run out of laundry soap?