This project aims to conduct initial research into the development of a new additive manufacturing process able to create structures with integrated rigid regions and a textile (felt). The process will use low-grade recycled materials, thereby making the process eco-friendly. The resulting structures will enable artists, designers, architects, and engineers to create new structures that would be very challenging to create otherwise. The manufacturing process will also enable the easy creation of couture, custom made-to-order products, where process output variability is typically a requirement. This research will investigate additional opportunities to add value with variability in manufacturing, specifically focusing on better understanding the structure of felts and the process of felting as an entrypoint into answering two questions:

1. How can we add the capacity for variability to process input and create manufacturing processes that can consume a wide variety of low grade, blended or waste materials?
2. How can we increase the scale and robustness of additive manufacturing and reduce the energy requirements and tightly toleranced material input requirements?

In summary, this research will investigate the capabilities of existing felted materials while simultaneously looking to apply the principles of felting, its rhizomic structure and extensible, heterogeneous properties to other material conversion processes. In other words, this research combines a literal investigation into the potential capabilities of automated industrial felting with a conceptual investigation into felting as paradigm for future manufacturing processes.

In this phase of our project, we intend to design a novel robotically controlled process for felting with fiber produced from post consumer recycled plastic that should:

1. require little tooling and formwork
2. reduce production waste
3. output components with variable form, density, texture to impact comfort and performance
4. build more quickly than common 3d printing processes

We will first work at a scale of human-assistance devices components but with the future intention to work much larger. If we are successful at the end of this phase we will have identified a process for sculpting felt and a strategy to put this process onto a CNC controlled robot. This means we will have developed material, tooling and coding to output parts from felted recycled plastic.

Felt is a unique material because it can be both very flexible and rigid, and additional material can be added at any point in a structure through "needling" it on (interweaving the fibers by pressing a set of needles through the new fibers and into the existing fibers). With synthetic fibers (plastics), felted objects can also be melted together by applying heat, thereby fusing the fibers into a more dense or solid structure. This hybrid felted-melted approach is under-explored, and our project aims to understand its capabilities and limitations in more detail.

We will construct a robotic felting device will include a feeder to intake fibers (e.g. of recycled polyester), a needling device that will compress the fibers into a felt mat, and heating elements to fuse the fibers together. This felting "head" will be initially moved by hand to create layers, and eventually placed onto the end of a CNC controlled 5-axis robot that will enable precise, complex structures to be fabricated. The design and control of this will be possible due to Co-PI Asbeck's extensive experience with designing and constructing robots, PI Hauptman's extensive experience with felting and CNC processes, and Collaborator Zesk's experience with both CNC processes and materials.

Following the creation of this robotic felting head, we will construct a number of prototypes. We will construct devices that can integrate into exoskeletons that include both rigid regions (for interfacing with motors), soft regions (for interfacing with the wearer), and mechanical devices such as living hinges. We will also create a number of artistic and architectural forms, whose development will be guided by PI Hauptman and External collaborators Zesk and Metz, who have substantial experience in art and design.

This research will lay the foundation for new types of flexible, robust additive production processes operating in the space between industrial manufacturing and digital fabrication. The focus on the unique properties of felt and the felting process is expected to generate novel answers to questions of how recycled materials can be used in a CNC process and what mechanical properties are possible with the resulting structures.

The novel manufacturing process researched will generate materials that can be both a solid and a textile. It will allow these materials to be graded, including regions of rigid and soft regions adjacent to each other, thereby opening the door to a wide range of applications. With the materials made in this process, artists and architects will be able to create new forms that would not be able to be made otherwise, and engineers will be able to create hybrid soft-rigid structures that are compatible with the human body. In all of these cases, the ability to make one-off, custom designs efficiently will enable cost-effective, innovative designs.