Sep 30, 2015 | By Kira

The U.S. Department of Defense’s official science blog released details of a powerful and versatile new 3D printer that can print up to 10 materials at once and embed electronics, circuits and sensors directly into the object, allowing it to create a finished products, from spare parts to war missiles, directly in the field. The 3D printer, known as the MultiFab, was designed by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and would retail for just $7,000—significantly less expensive than comparable multi-material 3D printers.

The MultiFab is the first 3D printer to use 3D scanning techniques from machine vision. Thus, along with its impressively low price-point (similar printers that can handle only three materials at a time have been known to cost as much as $250,000), the MultiFab offers two important features that set it apart.

First, it runs a loop of continuous 3D scans that allow it to self-calibrate and self-correct in order to maintain print accuracy. For each layer of the design, the system generates 3D scans to detect errors, and ‘correction masks’ to clean them up, eliminating the need for operators to fine-tune the settings themselves. Speaking of print accuracy, the MultiFab can deliver resolution at the level of 40 microns—less than half the width of a human hair.

Second, the embedding feature allows it to include complex electrical pieces, such as sensors and circuits, during the initial printing, again eliminating the need for manual assembly and reducing cost and waste.

James Zunino, Picatinny Materials Engineer, displays an object that was created through 3-D printing. Courtesy of the U.S. Army

“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, ”said Javier Ramos, a research engineer at CSAIL and co-author of the initial research paper presenting MultiFab. According to CSAIL, they have been able to print smartphone cases to LED lenses, opening up the technology to many fields including medical imaging and consumer electronics.

However, it’s the printer’s military applications that truly grabbed the Department of Defense’s (DOD) attention. “Before a warfighter can print a missile in the field, you need quality, controlled processes to fabricate all the component materials,” said Chris McCarroll, director of the National Additive Manufacturing Institute. “The hard part is then making the connections between these components, as an example, the integrated control circuit that receives the command to light the fuse.”

Not only would the MultiFab eliminate the need for assembling sensitive parts separately, it would save the military significant time and money, and reduce waste. As the DOD blog states, this kind of 3D printing technology will make the supply and logistics chain shorter by providing soldiers the ability to machine parts on-site, even in remote locations rather than waiting for manufacturing and delivery from around the globe.

It also means that the shipment of physical goods would be replaced with electronic files that can be sent instantly and at no cost. “The potential impact in scaling advances manufacturing across the defense enterprise cannot be overstated,” said MCarroll.

3-D scanning technology is used by the Army to create models for visualization, prototypes and reverse engineer existing technologies. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

While CSAIL maintains that their technology will benefit everyone, from the casual hobbyist to the small business owner to researchers and manufacturers, it’s clear that the implications for the military are huge. Soldiers on rescue missions or performing humanitarian aid in remote areas can 3D print repair parts, medical tools, or other devices to help with their missions and save lives. On the flip side, this technology can be used to create life-destroying missiles at the push of a button.

The controversial use of drones and automated weapons to remotely detonate bombs and perform strategic tactical operations has been making headlines for the past several years, and is just one example of how new technologies can change the very way we go into combat. While there is no doubt at this point that military forces all over the world are already heavily invested in using 3D printing to their advantage, there lies a heavy responsibility in developing these technologies for warfare and combat purposes.

The MultiFab system was developed by CSAIL researchers and revealed in a paper that was recently accepted at the SIGGRAPH computer-graphics confnerece. Along with Ramos, the team includes Professor Wojciech Matusik of the Computational Fabrication Group, lead author and former CSAIL postdoc Pitchaya Sitthi-Amorn, former graduate students Joyce Kwan and Justin Lan, research scientist Wenshou Wang, and graduate student Yu Wang of Tsinghua University.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

 

 

 

 

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