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Still 3D printing with one material? We can use TEN, say MIT eggheads

Printer/scanner costs less than $10,000 too

By Iain Thomson, 25 Aug 2015

Video Designers at MIT have used off-the-shelf components and some nifty software to build a cheap combination 3D printer and scanner unit that can use ten different materials at a time.

Youtube Video

Multi-material 3D printers aren't new, of course, just very, very expensive – typically costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. This new device, dubbed MultiFab, was put together for just $7,000 in parts. A scanner system is also builtin so the machine can recognize objects and print around them.

"Right now a big portion of the 3D printing hardware that's available is focused on building forms and objects for prototyping," said Javier Ramos, a research engineer at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

"The holy grail is to print things that are fully functional right out of the printer, combining multiple materials with many different qualities but also existing objects that have some inherent functionality."


It isn't small or pretty, but it is cheap and powerful

He gave the example of an LED that can be put into the printer and have a focusing lens printed directly on top. Objects like smartphones can be put into the printer to be scanned and have their dimensions worked out by the printer's control computer, and then have a case printed directly around them.

MultiFab is also capable of much higher resolution printing than is possible with most 3D printers today. 3D printed objects typically have a grainy feel to them, as a result of layer upon layer of material being extruded down by a relatively large print head.

But the MultiFab device uses a print head adapted from inkjet technology that sprays droplets of photopolymers that are capable of 10 micrometer resolution. Chip heads among you will laugh – that's where processor designers were 40 years ago – but for 3D printing it's a big step.

There's still a long way to go, however. The printer is limited to polymers only – 3D printing with metal requires different equipment to melt and work the powdered toner – and the makers acknowledge that it is slow, taking hours to complete an object.

But the potential is there, and the fact that the device has been created at such a low cost in the lab compared to commercial products is very encouraging. The design, which was presented at the recent SIGGRAPH conference, could be used by commercial manufacturers to up their game.

"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." ®

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