MIT Researchers Develop Multi-Material 3D Printer

Three-dimensional printing has grown rapidly in the last decade, allowing people to build everything from figurines to hand tools. But one of the biggest impediments to 3D printing has always been the limited number of materials it can use to print at any one time. That may be about to change.

A new 3D printer developed by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) can print objects using up to 10 different materials at once. The researchers, who have dubbed the multi-material printer MultiFab, said it could eventually open up new opportunities for researchers, manufacturers, and consumers.

Greater Accuracy, Cheaper

“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. Ramos co-authored a paper about MultiFab with members of professor Wojciech Matusik’s Computational Fabrication Group.

MultiFab isn’t the world’s first 3D printer capable of printing using more than one material simultaneously. Several multi-material machines are already on the market. But these have been limited to, at most, using three different materials, and can cost as much as $250,000.

In many cases, these printers can’t reliably print objects without significant intervention by users. It can often take multiple printing attempts to successfully produce objects as they were designed. That can cost significant amounts of money in printing material.

Ramos and his group said they have solved several of these engineering challenges. MultiFab is the first printer to use machine vision 3D-scanning techniques. That capability allows the printer to self-calibrate and self-correct for any mistakes it makes, reducing the amount of human intervention required. Every time a layer is printed, the machine scans the object, detects any mistakes, and prints a “correction mask” to compensate.

That may not sound very revolutionary. But the self-correcting mechanism has allowed the researchers to improve production quality while vastly reducing the cost to build the printer. In fact, the researchers said they built their prototype using only off-the-shelf components for only $7,000.

Printing a Robot

Because MultiFab can print using so many different kinds of materials at once, it can produce much more complex objects than more limited 3D printers. The researchers have already used it to embed complex components such as circuits and sensors directly onto an object.

According to the MIT team, MultiFab could be used to build an array of complex objects including consumer electronics components, microsensing devices, medical imaging devices, and telecommunications components. Potentially, it could even be used to build objects as complex as fully functioning robots.

The potential enterprise applications for MultiFab are enormous, Ramos said. The printer could allow manufacturers to edit and finalize designs faster, allowing them to bring products to market sooner. Retailers already using single-material 3D printers could now offer hobbyists and small-business owners access to multi-material 3D printing at affordable prices.

Source: MIT Researchers Develop Multi-Material 3D Printer

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