For some time now, multi-material 3D printing has been sought by researchers and engineers as the holy grail of this promising technology, allowing for greatly simplified production process and a significant reduction in overall cost.
Now, thanks to the brilliant minds at MIT, printing objects with several materials at the same time could soon become relatively simple and inexpensive – researchers working at the Institute‘s Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab had recently built a 3D printer capable of printing with as many as 10 different materials at the same time. And all that for just $7,000 – over 20 times cheaper than the currently-available machines, which can simultaneously work with 3 materials.
Apart from the flagship characteristic, the new printer is also equipped with machine vision, meaning it can self-calibrate, self-correct and even scan already existing objects.
The latter refers to the device’s capacity to embed mechanical parts, such as circuits and sensors, directly into the printed object by building around it, while the first two pertain to its ability to scan the object-in-question as it’s being built and look for errors, which allows it to correct any mistakes before they become grave and warrant the object to be scrapped.
To create the extruders, the team adapted piezoelectric inkjet printheads. These extrude microscopic droplets of polymer, which allows an ultrafine print resolution of around 40 micro-metres, less than half the width of a human hair.
Although the materials used in a presentation at the 2015 SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques Conference were all UV-cured photopolymers, the team also tested the printer with co-polymers, hydrogels and solvent-based materials.
“The platform opens up new possibilities for manufacturing, giving researchers and hobbyists alike the power to create objects that have previously been difficult or even impossible to print,” co-author Javier Ramos said.
The team thinks their new printer could have appeal for a wide range of people – from home users and enthusiasts to professionals looking for a less expensive way to build prototypes. Such printers could even be installed in stores so that customers could submit their 3D files for printing without having to purchase a printer.
“Picture someone who sells electric wine-openers, but doesn’t have $7,000 to buy a printer like this. In the future they could walk into a FedEx with a design and print out batches of their finished product at a reasonable price,” Ramos said. “For me, a practical use like that would be the ultimate dream.”