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Published on Aug 25, 2015
3-D printing is great, assuming you're printing one material for one purpose, and that you’re fine with a few do-overs. But the technology is still far behind in reliably producing a variety of useful objects, with no assembly required, at a moderate cost. In recent years, companies have been working to tackle some of these challenges with “multi-material” 3-D printers that can fabricate many different functional items. Such printers, however, have traditionally been limited to three materials at a time, can cost as much as $250,000 each, and still require a fair amount of human intervention.
But, researchers at MIT say that they’ve found a way to make a better, cheaper, more user-friendly printer. They presented a 3-D printer that can print an unprecedented 10 different materials at once by using 3-D-scanning techniques that save time, energy, and money.
Delivering resolution at 40 microns — or less than half the width of a human hair — the “MultiFab” system is the first 3-D printer to use 3-D-scanning techniques from machine vision, which offers two key advantages in accuracy and convenience over traditional 3-D printing.
First, MultiFab can self-calibrate and self-correct, freeing users from having to do the fine-tuning themselves. For each layer of the design, the system’s feedback loop 3-D scans and detects errors and then generates so-called “correction masks.” This approach allows the use of inexpensive hardware while ensuring print accuracy.
Secondly, MultiFab gives users the ability to embed complex components, such as circuits and sensors, directly onto the body of an object, meaning that it can produce a finished product, moving parts and all, in one fell swoop.
The researchers have used MultiFab to print everything from smartphone cases to light-emitting diode lenses — and they envision an array of applications in consumer electronics, microsensing, medical imaging, and telecommunications, among other things. They plan to also experiment with embedding motors and actuators that would make it possible to 3-D print more advanced electronics, including robots.
MultiFab was built using low-cost, off-the-shelf components that cost around $7,000 total.
There are many technical challenges to creating a printer like MultiFab: Different materials require different pressures and temperatures, so printing something complex usually involves printing all individual pieces separately, and then assembling them by hand.
But with MultiFab, you simply put the components into the platform and the printer does the rest. Cameras automatically scan the components' three-dimensional geometries and uses that information to print other objects around them. For example, you can put an iPhone into the printer, and program the system to print a case that is directly affixed onto the phone.