As 3D printing advances from its plastic roots, we're seeing more and more materials passing through its nozzles. Metal, glass, random gunk—each new filament opens the door to new manufacturing applications.
Now researchers have made a printer they claim can use up to ten different materials at once. The "MultiFab," made by MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), could offer a relatively low-cost option for the multimaterial 3D printing market. Multimaterial printers offer the ability to print objects that aren't 100 percent one material (i.e. most functional devices of more than one part) in one go.
In a paper for the journal ACM Transactions on Graphics, the researchers explain that for now the 15 materials in their library are all "UV-curable photopolymers" with different properties, such as one that's notably rigid, and one that's elastic. They suggest that other materials could be included in the future.
While the multimaterial aspect of the printer is useful, it also has some other pretty cool features, such as its use of machine vision techniques. This gives the printer a few clever capabilities: for one, it's able to correct itself to some extent. Once it's printed a layer of material, it can 3D scan the outcome and see if it's level. If there are imperfections, the printer can then compute a corrective layer to fill in any holes or smooth over any bumps.
It can also use its vision to work around objects and print on top of existing components. In a video demonstrating the printer, the CSAIL researchers show how it can print a handle around a razor blade placed on the print bed or a lens on top of an LED bulb. It looks like someone was even brave enough to put their iPhone in the machine, as one example in the paper shows a "privacy screen"—a thin layer that obscures the phone's display—printed directly onto the device.
It can print a handle around a razor blade placed on the print bed or a lens on top of an LED bulb.
The whole printer is, to be honest, pretty neat. In addition to all its bonus features, it also improves on print resolution by using inkjet print heads like those in a regular printer, rather than the usual glue gun-style nozzles. These print the material in small droplets, giving a resolution of 40 micrometers (so you don't get that trademark ridged effect in the end print).
The applications of this kind of printer are obviously broad, and the researchers even suggest it could be used to make more complex materials to start with, by mixing several materials with different properties.
They aim their printer at the computer graphics industry, stating that, "By fabricating real materials and objects, we will be able to improve and validate rendering and simulation algorithms."
But they recognise that the appeal could be much wider. "Engineers and hobbyists will be able to design and fabricate a variety of functional devices and objects," they conclude. "Students and teachers will be able to create complex mathematical figures, physics sets, lens systems, and anatomical models."