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MIT builds a 3D printer that can use 10 materials at once

Lucas Mearian | Aug. 26, 2015
Researchers were able to build the printer with off-the-shelf commodity parts for $7K.

Even if MIT's prototype was less expensive than industrial systems to create, that doesn't equate to what they may cost to produce commercially, Wohlers said.

"It's one thing for a researcher at a university to state the cost of parts that make up a machine, but it's something entirely different to commercialize a product and make it a sustainable business," Wohlers said. "When business people and investors get involved, major adjustments are usually made to the pricing."

Anthony Vicari, an analyst with Lux Research, said a 3D printer with a $7,000 build of materials is not going to compete with the consumer printer market where some systems cost just a few hundred dollars.

However, Vicari said, assuming MIT's 3D printer will retail for under $20,000, it would challenge both the capabilities and pricing structure of current industrial printers that cost in the $50,000-$250,000 range.

"In particular, besides the use of more materials at once [as well as] sourced from third parties, the use of an open platform where users can modify the hardware and software, use a wider range of more capable file formats, and monitor parts in real time during production are all potentially highly impactful and otherwise hard to find in the current market," Vicari said in an email response to Computerworld.

Javier Ramos, a research engineer at CSAIL, said in a statement that the MultiFab printer "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."

Because of the wide range of materials available, the researchers used the MultiFab to build everything from smartphone cases to light-emitting diode lenses. The researchers said they can foresee an array of applications for the MultiFab 3D in consumer electronics, microsensing, medical imaging and telecommunications, among other things.

They also plan to try embedding motors and actuators in objects that would make it possible to 3-D print more advanced electronics, including robots.

The MiltiFab has high resolution, meaning the layers of material are extremely thin, creating a relatively smooth surface. The machine prints with "at least" 40 microns resolution or .04 millimeters.

By comparison, some of best consumer 3D printers today print at about .05 millimeters.

Along with industrial uses, the MIT researchers envisioned the printer being bought by service centers for customer-created designs.

"Picture someone who sells electric wine openers, but doesn't have $7,000 to buy a printer like this. In the future, they could walk into a FedEx with a design and print out batches of their finished product at a reasonable price," Ramos says. "For me, a practical use like that would be the ultimate dream."


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