3D printing technology has been around for some time, but it has largely remained a novelty for most people. Printers typically only create objects using a single material, usually plastic and although prices have come down, 3D printing is still fairly expensive. Because of the pricing and limitations, it has proven useful to engineers, architects and designers but has never come close to being a common, household technology.
According to researchers at MIT however, 3D printing is ready to take a major leap forward. Currently, 3D printers exist that can work with three materials at a time, but these cost upward of $250,000 and require human manipulation to switch between materials. The new MIT printer, dubbed “MultiFab” can work with 10 different materials at a time, without human intervention and was built from off the shelf components for $7,000.
According to a statement from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), MultiFab can “can self-calibrate and self-correct”, stopping at each layer to conduct a 3D-scan. The printer then generates “correction masks”, detecting errors and adjusting it’s placement of microscopic droplets of photopolymers before continuing. The machine has a resolution of 40 microns, or about half the width of a hair, making each layer and adjustment incredibly precise.
“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.” said Javier Ramos, a research engineer at CSAIL and co-author of a paper presented at the SIGGRAPH computer-graphics conference.
According the the researchers the system will allow for the printing of sensitive consumer and medical electronics including devices as complex as robots. MultiFab can also be used to add on to existing objects. Objects placed on the platform are scanned and their geometries are used to place any additions. According to the team “you can put an iPhone right into the printer, and program the system to print a perfectly-sized case that is directly affixed onto the phone.”
Ramos believes that printers similar to MultiFab could will be useful to manufacturers, retailers and consumers including small business.
“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. For me, a practical use like that would be the ultimate dream,” he said.