3D printing company Stratsys today unveiled a new printer at the SolidWorks World 2014 convention in San Diego, and it looks to be a step toward what most people probably thought of when they first heard about 3D printing: press a button, get a finished object.
Stratasys claims the Objet500 Connex3 is the first full-colour multi-material 3D printer. What that means is it can make one object out of various materials and colours in just one print session. The result, if the video above is anything to go by, is that the 3D-printed prototype objects actually look like real products.
That might sound quite basic, but it’s something that’s been missing with 3D printing before, as most machines were limited to printing in one material and one colour—which is fine for Yoda figurines, but not so great for genuinely useful products. With the new technology, Stratasys shows examples such as glasses or goggles, which have hard plastic lenses but more flexible, rubbery frames. It’s still a way off printing, say, a whole Airbus, but it’s a step in that direction.
Although the Connex3 is touted as a “multi-material” printer, it doesn’t work with any filament you care to choose. It starts with three plastic and rubber-like resins, and blends them in the printer to create composite materials with different values of rigidity, flexibility and transparency. The colours are formed just like in an inkjet printer: cyan, magenta, and yellow mix to form a whole colour palette. “You can put 3 base colours in to the Connex and build one model with 45 different colours,” explains engineer Gil Robinson in the launch video.
Stratasys has been leading the multi-material game for a while, after it merged with Israeli 3D printer manufacturer in 2012 (the company also acquired MakerBot last year). When Motherboard’s Derek Mead checked out their products at CES a few weeks ago, he was impressed by their ability to blend two different materials; the Connex3 adds another to that mix, and we can no doubt expect to see more soon—Stratasys’s VP of marketing said then that he thought the company was only a few years off printing in metal.
While the innovation will no doubt have caught the eye of hobbyists, it’s intended as an industrial product and will reportedly cost around $300,000. It’s clearly meant for developing concept models and prototype parts. Speaking about the new printer, Stratasys marketing manager Bruce Bradshaw told the BBC, “This will help industrial designers reduce the time it takes to bring prototypes to market by 50 percent.” The argument is that by printing a multi-material, multicoloured object in one, you cut down on any assembly and painting time and can make any necessary tweaks a lot earlier in the process.
Quite how game-changing this technology will be will depend on its uptake in industry, and what people actually manage to make of it. But crucially, it opens the door to new applications of additive manufacturing, where the single-material restriction may have been a limiting factor in the past. Those 3D-printed drones just got a little more feasible.