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A new type of 3-D printer created by Disney Research allows layers of soft fabric to be used instead of plastic or metal. The result is objects that are as soft and pliable as normal 3-D printed things are rough and solid. It works by laying down a sheet of fabric, be it felt, cotton or synthetic, and using a laser to cut the shape of the bottom-most layer. The sheet is then treated with a heat-sensitive adhesive and another layer of fabric placed on top, which is then laser-cut again in the shape the next layer — and so on. At the end, the fabric surrounding the object being built layer by layer can be removed, leaving behind the object itself.
Multiple fabric types can be used, or more rigid materials, or even electronics. The paper describing the new printer shows a star-shaped item with a touch sensor, and a smartphone cozy with a layer dedicated to wireless charging. It's not quite at the "print me a teddy bear" phase, but the technique could eventually help make smart clothes and smart toys, or otherwise augment the 3-D printing process.