Built using 3D printed parts, the handheld dispenser is easy to use (Image credit: Interactive Media Lab)


There are plenty of smart devices and wearables to choose from these days, but when it comes to smart clothing, the options are still limited. They’re either in the planning stages or restricted to certain markets. Though there are machines that use rigid yarns to incorporate digital functionalities into textiles, they’re not widely accessible by makers and designers. A team of scientists hopes to make the process less painful with their new prototype known as the Rapid Iron-On (RIO).


The RIO is a handheld dispenser that allows you to apply different functional tapes of various lengths and patches to most textiles and fabrics. Using the device, you can map out complex circuits, custom-shaped I/O modules, and commodity textile surfaces using a variety of continuous tapes and patches comprised of a heat-activated adhesive.


Built with a pair of wheeled axels used to hold the spool material along with a pair of spring-loaded posts and a soldering iron, the functional tape rolled on spools can be applied directly to the fabric, similar to how you would sketch on fabric using a pen. Pushing down on the spring-loaded iron causes the adhesive to melt and hold the circuit in place. The device is even equipped with a small actuated blade to cut the tape to a specific length for any project. And since the tapes are rolled onto spools, they can be easily inserted and swapped out when needed. All the parts used to make the tool was 3D printed and protected with Teflon heat resistant fiberglass tape.


The tapes and patches it uses are easily ironed on, talk about a tool meant to be easy to use. This is due to its composition. Each patch or tape is made up of three layers: the adhesive layer that bonds it to a textile base, the functional layer, which can contain conductive materials, and the carrier layer that holds the layout of the functional material in place until it’s transferred to the textile.


It sounds pretty promising, but does it actually work? Short answer: yes. To show off its capabilities, the team created prototype smart clothing, including a smart cuff with a four-way button built in to control slide presentations for meetings. They also created a smart coat with an RFID that lets medical professionals gain access to secure locations without having to look for that pesky keycard. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, they even made a messenger bag equipped with internal lighting when opened, capacitive buttons and slider for controlling a music player, and a moisture sensor at the bottom for detecting leaks.


While the tests and the interviews the team conducted with fashion experts about the tool were positive, it’s still in the early stages. The team will work on improving the device and plan to run various workshops in design schools and maker spaces to see how it can be used by students and makers. Hopefully, it won’t be too long (or expensive) to get this out to makers and creators.


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