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Multimaterial Functionality, the Latest 3D-Printing Score

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

The world of 3D printing is advancing furiously these days, with developments—each more improbable than the last—arriving at such a rapid pace that it’s unlikely to imagine anyone keeping up.

Among the latest, we find a revolution undertaken by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the form of a 3D printer prototype that’s able to print up to 10 different materials—plastic, metal, fibre-optic bundles, wood, ceramic, and so on—onto a single object simultaneously.

Conventional 3D printers can only print out one material at a time. They are layered atop each other, one after another, and the process requires assiduous oversight given its propensity to go south.

Multi-material 3D printers aren’t as novel as they might seem: a company called Stratasys unveiled its own kick at the can a year-and-a-half ago, but the thing cost a quarter of a million dollars and still calls for lots of supervision. However, MIT’s MultiFab is an undeniable marvel.

For one, it spits out its variously layered phenomena effortlessly. For another, it only cost $7,000 (in off-the-shelf parts) to build.

Where more costly printers employ sophisticated mechanical systems that routinely sweep every layer of the printed object to ensure that it remains flat and properly laid out, the MIT printer uses something called “machine vision” technology—arguably its most important breakthrough. That means it doesn’t have sensors that need to physically make contact with the material being printed, which results in dramatic cost savings.

This latest printing development effectively integrates traditional manufacturing with 3D printing, and the hybrid result ushers in an entirely new category of printed objects. Among its inaugural creations: LED lenses, a metal blade encased in a plastic blade holder, and smartphone cases that are “printed” around the smartphone.

MultiFab’s innovators foresee their technology being able to print functioning finished products that include embedded motors and actuators. Eventually, they predict, it will find application in the consumer electronics, telecommunications, medical imaging, and microsensing fields.

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