Researchers create 3D printed objects that connect to WiFi with no electronics

Doris Richards
December 7, 2017

Generally, complex electronics are involved, so it seems impossible to have WiFi-connected devices that involve no electronics at all - just plastic. But a new project devised by researchers at the University of Washington could one day help guide the creation of gadgets that don't require any power at all to stay online.

In a research paper that was presented at the Association for Computing Machinery's SIGGRAPH Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Asia, the researchers explain how plastic 3D printed objects can communicate with commercial WiFi receivers, turning ordinary household items into IoT-connected systems. They used composite plastic that contains conductive filament materials like copper and graphene fillings; to encode bits of data, they used gears (0s and 1s are represented by the presence and absence of teeth, respectively) - and transmitted said data using Wi-Fi backscatter, which allows for communication by modifying the reflection an incident Wi-Fi signal. "That's something that no one has been able to do before".

According to the team, using CAD models being made available to the public, anyone will be able to create objects using commercially available plastics that can communicate wirelessly with other smart devices. It typically relies on electronic components to reflect or absorb radio signals from a Wi-Fi router.

Physical motion triggers gears and springs elsewhere in the 3D printed object that cause a conductive switch to intermittently connect or disconnect with the antenna and change its reflective state.

Taken as a whole, the researchers say their range of 3D printed objects, sensors, and controls can be combined to form an ecosystem of "talking objects". Energy from a coiled spring drives the gear system, and the width and pattern of gear teeth control how long the backscatter switch makes contact with the antenna, creating patterns of reflected signals that can be decoded by a WiFi receiver. "The interaction between the 3D printed switch and antenna wirelessly transmits that data". A receiver can then monitor the bottle's level and send a message to a smartphone app when it falls below a certain level.

And lastly, the team also created a method for 3-D printing of iron in distinct patterns to invisibly encode static information in 3-D printed objects.

The researchers also printed a wind meter, a water flow meter and a scale, as well as various widgets such as buttons, knobs and sliders.

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