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UW engineers have developed the first 3D-printed plastic objects that can connect to WiFi without electronics. The attachment above can sense when your laundry soap is running low — and automatically order more. (Photo via Mark Stone / University of Washington)

Researchers from the University of Washington have developed 3D-printed plastic objects that can connect to the internet without any electronics or batteries in the object itself.

The researchers, who detailed their work in this paper, found a way to 3D-print plastic objects that can absorb or reflect ambient WiFi signals and send data wirelessly to any WiFi receiver like a smartphone or router.

As the UW explains in its news release, the researchers “replaced some functions normally performed by electrical components with mechanical motion activated by springs, gears, switches and other parts that can be 3-D printed — borrowing from principles that allow battery-free watches to keep time.”

The researchers found that those mechanical motions can trigger gears and springs that connect to an antenna, all within the object.

Possible use cases include an attachment for laundry detergent that can sense when soap is running low, or a water sensor that notifies your smartphone when there is a leak.

Here’s more information from the paper:

“This paper asks the following question: can objects made of plastic materials be connected to smartphones and other Wi-Fi devices, without the need for batteries or electronics? A positive answer would enable a rich ecosystem of ‘talking objects’ 3D printed with commodity plastic filaments that have the ability to sense and interact with their surroundings. Imagine plastic sliders or knobs that can enable rich physical interaction by dynamically sending information to a nearby Wi-Fi receiver to control music volume and lights in a room. This can also transform inventory management where for instance a plastic detergent bottle can self-monitor usage and re-order supplies via a nearby Wi-Fi device. Such a capability democratizes the vision of ubiquitous connectivity by enabling designers to download and use our computational modules, without requiring the engineering expertise to integrate radio chips and other electronics in their physical creations. Further, as the commoditization of 3D printers continues, such a communication capability opens up the potential for individuals to print highly customized wireless sensors, widgets and objects that are tailored to their individual needs and connected to the Internet ecosystem.”

According to the research paper’s co-lead author and UW electrical engineering doctoral student Vikram Iyer, no one has come up with a way for products to communicate wirelessly with WiFi using only plastic.

The researchers are making the CAD models public — you can access them here.

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