3D printed hair
The 3D-printed hair produced by MIT researchers Tangible Media Group/MIT Media Lab

Scientists have discovered a way of 3D-printing hair, in what's being hailed as a huge leap forward for 3D printing technology. Researchers at MIT's Media Lab have developed software that enables them to print thousands of hair-like structures onto a surface in mere minutes, opening up new possibilities in sensing, adhesion and actuation technologies.

In recent years, 3D printing has made some big leaps forward. Everybody from Nasa to Disney is currently dabbling in the tech, which is being eyed up by industries spanning aerospace, transport, defence and even fashion, food and children's toys.

Nevertheless, the technology still has its limitations. Printing very fine objects, for example bristles and other hair-like structures, proves tricky for 3D printers because it requires users to design each individual hair and feed it into the printer's computer-aided design (CAD) software. This takes a monumental amount of time, and processing large quantities of these is often more than the computer can handle.

MIT researchers claim to have found a way around this problem by developing software that lets users define the angle, thickness, density and height of thousands of hairs in just a few minutes, which can then be printed directly onto flat or curved surfaces. The new platform, called Cillia, allows conventional 3D printers to create coarse bristles, fine fur and structures resembling human hair simply by changing a few parameters in the program.

Real-world uses

While the researchers revealed the technology could "possibly" be a new era for the wig-making industry (we're not joking), MIT is more concerned with exploring how 3D-printed hair could be used for more wide-reaching purposes. So far, the team has been able to create pads that stick together like Velco, a table capable of moving and sorting different weights, and a rabbit toy that lights up in different colours depending on which way you stroke its fur.

Jifei Ou, lead author of MIT's research paper on the technology, said: "It's very inspiring to see how these structures occur in nature and how they can achieve different functions. We're just trying to think how can we fully utilise the potential of 3D printing, and create new functional materials whose properties are easily tuneable and controllable."

Kelly Schaefer, designer at design consulting firm Ideo, added: "Perhaps more inspiring than any single output from this team is the idea of rethinking the 3D printing process itself and the purpose of 3D-printed objects. The Cillia team has challenged some of the current constraints of 3D-printing processes, which makes me wonder what other constraints can be challenged and potentially eliminated."