A new low-cost 3D printer that can print 10 different materials at once could allow the creation of finished products including electronics, say researchers.
While 'multi-material' 3D printers exist already, they have traditionally been limited to three materials at a time, can cost as much as $250,000 (£160,000) each, and still require considerable human intervention.
Now, by using 3D-scanning techniques that save time, energy and money, a team from MIT have created a device that can print in 10 different materials using low-cost, off-the-shelf components that cost about $7,000 in total.
The device, called MultiFab, also 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, including moving parts, in one go.
"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, co-author of a paper accepted at the SIGGRAPH computer-graphics conference.
The device is capable of printing to a resolution of just 40 microns and so far the researchers have used it to print everything from smartphone cases to light-emitting diode lenses.
By borrowing 3D-scanning techniques from machine vision the MultiFab the machine is able to detect errors in each layer of the design and generate so-called “correction masks”, which allow it to self-calibrate and self-correct, freeing users from having to do the fine-tuning themselves.
The cameras also allow the printer to scan the three-dimensional geometries of components and use 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.
And while other multi-material printers work via “extrusion” technologies that squirt out melted materials that then harden to build an object layer-by-layer, MultiFab mixes microscopic droplets of photopolymers together that are then sent through inkjet printheads similar to those in office printers.
Potential applications range from consumer electronics to microsensing and telecommunications, according to the researchers, and they also plan to experiment with embedding motors and actuators that would make it possible to 3D print more advanced electronics, including robots.