Images courtesy MIT and the Self-Assembly Lab

MIT’s Gooey New 3D Printer Is a Game Changer

The Self-Assembly Lab teamed up with an Michigan-based furniture company to develop a gel-based machine that can print pretty much anything—in minutes.

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Apr 27 2017, 6:51pm

Images courtesy MIT and the Self-Assembly Lab

MIT's new gel-based 3D printer can fabricate nearly any shape and still look straight out of a sci-fi flick while doing it. A nozzle spurts out plastic spaghetti and weaves it into minimal geometric shapes that look like a progressive architect's office furniture. One could imagine the tank that puts Major Kusanagi together in the Ghost in the Shell anime has its roots in a gadget like the Rapid Liquid Print System, designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Self-Assembly Lab (SAL) and Michigan-based furniture design company, Steelcase.

Limited speed, scale, and substances are keeping 3D printing from competing with existing industrial manufacturing process like injection molding, casting, and milling according to Self-Assembly Lab director Skylar Tibbits. By adapting advancements in bio-printing to an industrial scale, "practically any size or complexity of object can be made with various materials. Rubber, foam, plastic, etc.," Tibbits tells Creators. 

SAL and Steelcase teamed up to answer the question, "How can we print a furniture-scale object in minutes?" Says Charlie Forslund, Procurement Principal for the Material Innovation department at Steelcase, "This departure from traditional thinking led to entirely new 3D printing methodology."

Normally, a 3D printer must build an object from the ground up, millimeter by millimeter, starting from a flat metal base. This process takes hours. The Rapid Liquid Print System essentially draws an object into being in three-dimensional space, supported by a special gel, in the time it takes for a robotic arm to move from Point A to Point B. "Our specific breakthrough was that we could combine liquid deposition systems (two-part mixing systems in the nozzle) with pneumatic control, large tanks of gel, and high-resolution control over the machines," Tibbits says. "Only when we combined all of those elements were we able to produce very precise, large-scale, super fast parts that had really nice material properties."

The Rapid Liquid Print System is still in its research phase, but it's already pumping out products I could see in next season's Kinfolk catalogs. Tibbits, however, isn't sure if the technology will trickle down to the indie makers currently pushing the envelope of 3D printing. "This is certainly scalable toward both ends of the spectrum," he says, but the current setup requires tens of thousands of dollars to operate. "Alternatively, better machines, nozzles, and control systems could help make it faster and more precise, and could yield better results for the industrial end of the scale," Tibbets adds. 

For now, we don't need to own one, we just want to watch it make stuff, and you can too in the video below.



See more work from MIT's Self-Assembly Lab here, and Steelcase's work here.

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