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3D printer processes ten materials at once, no assembly required

25 August 2015

A printer from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab uses machine vision and 3D scanning to self-correct and directly embed components.

MultiFab has been used to print smartphone cases, light-emitting diode lenses, fibre-optic cables, and other items (photomontage: Tom Buehler/CSAIL)

In recent years, companies have been working to tackle some of these challenges with 'multi-material' 3D 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 this week, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) say that they’ve found a way to make a better, cheaper, more user-friendly printer. In a paper accepted at the SIGGRAPH computer-graphics conference, a CSAIL team presented a 3D printer that can print an unprecedented ten different materials at once by using 3D-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 3D printer to use 3D-scanning techniques from machine vision, which offers two key advantages in accuracy and convenience over traditional 3D printing. MultiFab was built using low-cost, off-the-shelf components that cost around $7,000 total.

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 3D 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 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," says Javier Ramos, a research engineer at CSAIL who co-authored the paper with members of professor Wojciech Matusik’s Computational Fabrication Group.

The researchers have used MultiFab to print everything from smartphone cases to light-emitting diode lenses — and they foresee an array of applications in consumer electronics, microsensing, medical imaging, and telecommunications, among other things. They also plan to experiment with embedding motors and actuators that would make it possible to 3D print more advanced electronics, including robots.

The MultiFab system (photo: Tom Buehler/CSAIL)

With MultiFab, cameras automatically scan a 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.

Other multi-material printers work via 'extrusion' technologies, using nozzles that squirt out melted material, that then hardens, to build an object layer-by-layer. Such techniques, while sufficient for certain uses, often lead to low-resolution finished items.

MultiFab, on the other hand, mixes microscopic droplets of photopolymers together that are then sent through inkjet printheads similar to those in office printers. The computationally intensive process, which involves crunching dozens of gigabytes of visual data, can be much more easily scaled to larger objects and multiple materials.

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