Feb 23, 2016 | By Andre
Producing multi-color 3D printing for your typical FDM desktop 3D printer has been a tremendous hurdle for years now. Solutions such as multiple extruders have been tried and marketed with some success, but reliability and output quality remain major issues to this day. So back in 2014, when I received an email from a product development team based out of Kingston, Ontario about wanting to discuss a filament splicing stand-alone unit called the Palette, I was a little bit skeptical about the reality of their expectations.
Fast-forward a year and I learned that Mosaic Manufacturing, the Canadian team behind the Palette, ran a Kickstarter campaign and broke the $100,000 mark within the first 12 hours before rounding out with a total of $230,000 in campaign pledges. This success was a clear indicator that interest in alternative approaches to multi-filament 3D printing was something people were keen to explore.
One of Mosaic's goals right from the start was to provide an answer to multi-filament 3D printing that was clean, accurate and compatible with just about any FDM-based 3D printer already on the market today. So, another year later, after receiving an invite to visit the new headquarters of Mosaic Manufacturing for a sneak peak of all the progress that’s been made since those early days, how could I say no?
Producing 1000 Palettes
After arriving at their downtown Toronto office, I was treated to a quick bite and cold beverage with core members of the Mosaic Manufacturing team before getting a tour of their space. It was immediately obvious that a lot of work and planning had gone into moving their operation to the big city.
The first room I was shown was the Palette production area that was fully stocked with the necessary components and tools to piece the Palette together. Their productions operations engineer and small assembly team are now preparing to fulfill the first 40 Kickstarter units by March with the goal of producing an additional 100 units per month from that point on. As things stand, they plan on using this space to manufacture at least 1000 units before moving on to another system.
As the tour continued I was shown the hardware development room that included a laser cutter, CNC mill, lathe and just about every tool you would need to optimize and test product revisions in a speedy manner. These tools play into the long-term strategy for Mosaic Manufacturing.
To them, the success of their Kickstarter campaign was just the beginning. As Mitch Debora, co-founder of Mosaic Manufacturing put it, “Kickstarter doesn’t build a company. It helps you build a product, but we need to ensure we have a company to support all of our backers. It’s exciting to be able to be here to support Kickstarter, and then keep going.”
Multi-Machine, Multi-Color 3D Printing in Action
Next on the tour was the Palette itself. While it was situated and hooked in to a Makerbot Replicator 2 for testing, it could very well have been hooked into any number of the 3D printers they had available to them. This focus on cross-platform compatibility is very important to what the Palette represents. Mitch stated that “because it’s a universal product, having as many printers as we can have, from the Deltas to the massive, to the cheap to the expensive, the quick to the slow, we’re trying everything.” Basically, as long as you’re 3D printer uses 1.75mm filament and runs from a gcode or x3g file, you're Palette compatible.
It wasn’t long thereafter that Mosaic revved up the Palette for me to see the process from start to finish. By getting a peek under the hood of the demo unit, I was able to see how the four attached filament spools pulled through the “merger unit”. This is where a cutter accurately snipped the different filament strands before being pushed through to the splicing section of the unit. From here, the filament is fused back together, tested for consistency and then sent up along to the outgoing drive before getting pulled through the 3D printer like any single-color filament would.
This process takes roughly five minutes, about the same time as warming up the heated bed on a 3D printer, so there isn’t much difference in terms of preparation vs. what you might already be used to while setting up your 3D printer. The print time itself is generally a bit longer than what you would get with a one color 3D print. For example, the custom 3Ders stand that was 3D printed while I watched clocked in at 1 hour and 55 minutes with the Palette and would have come in at 1 hour and 20 minutes if printing in one-color directly through the Makerbot.
The extra time is almost entirely the result of the want for clean 3D prints. As evidenced in the photo below, something called transition towers are formed next to the model being 3D printed to allow for crisp color switches instead of a messy transition.
It was quickly becoming evident to me that Mosaic is developing a unique technology compared to anything else on the market today. So it’s no wonder the team has been keeping their “ear to the ground listening for anybody else coming out.” Until now, they haven’t seen anything similar to the Palette but welcome any friendly competition when it does arrive.
Patents Filed, but Competition Welcome
That being said, it seems the team is prepared and has already secured a number of patents for a version of the Palette that is still in the development stage. The difference is that this one allows for a more seamless integration with 3D printers being developed around the world today.
Mitch has suggested that “reception has been insane” for the palette and that “the amount of OEMs (3D printer companies) that have said 'I need this in my printer because dual extruders aren’t going to be happening, and I can’t invest two years to develop a solution,'" has been fairly consistent.
It was at this point that Mitch made clear that he was no longer talking about the Kickstarter standalone device but instead of their early-stage, fully integrated version of the Palette that is connected directly to a 3D printer’s controller. This means if the 3D printer is wifi-enabled, so is the Palette and that only one file is necessary to produce the multi-color or multi-material results.
This new product development strategy will run in parallel with the current stand-alone Palette for the foreseeable future, but is important for the growth of the company as the 3D printer vendors they’re partnering up with ship hundreds upon hundreds of 3D printers every month.
Mitch hinted at the fact that just about every 3D printing partner they’ve already secured relations with had approached them after hearing about the Palette during the Kickstarter campaign and the buzz that it generated. He later used the analogy that Mosaic Manufacturing hoped to become the “Intel of 3D printing” by stating that “when you focus on something, you can be the expert on it." Adding that, "from day one, we were never building a multi-color 3D printer.”
Regarding their patent applications, Mitch admits that they can be “a sensitive topic in the industry,” but sees patents as “an a necessary enabling tool” for company growth. “Again, we don’t want to build a product, we want to be building a company. And this is very important to users because people need more than a product. They need support, they need warranty, and they want it to keep on going. In order to deliver that, we need to build a company.” They have already grown their staff to 10 members as of this writing.
The patents shown to me during our discussion (titled "Mosaic's Mega-patent") included the Palette’s core mechanism based around what they call Series Enabled Extrusion of Materials (SEEM) and a filament purge system that is to be built directly into 3D printers using the aforementioned integrated Palette system. This diverting system is essentially an extruder-based garbage can that collects color transitions waste material in place of having to create the transition towers described earlier on.
All said, my visit with Toronto's Mosaic Manufacturing gave me a chance to see just how far they’ve come since my early interactions with the company in 2014. Additionally, seeing the fruits of their labor in the fully-functional Palette unit while getting a sneak peak of their next-generation device (due out some time in 2017) made the wait well worth it. For the majority of 3D printing enthusiasts, myself included, the ability to add multi-color capabilities to just about any desktop 3D printer is a game-changer. And if wanting it is half the battle, the sheer enthusiasm and expertise exhibited by the team at Mosaic has me convinced that they are ready to bring multi-material, multi-color, multi-machine 3D printing to the masses.
Posted in 3D Printing Technology
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Sandra Coady wrote at 2/24/2016 6:01:26 PM:
Very, very impressive. Great advances being made in the world of 3D colour printing. Awesome!!
DamienHorst wrote at 2/24/2016 1:58:19 PM:
@Max: Look at the Frog ;)
Gorgon H wrote at 2/24/2016 5:32:36 AM:
Max, I think your right about the geological relief. That is a clever use of colored layers but most of the other prints have more then colored layers. The 3ders name plate has 3 colors in each layer. The floor plan has 4 colors with many colors per layer. The biggest difference that I notice is how crisp the color definition is on those prints. Never seen anything like it.
Johnny wrote at 2/24/2016 12:26:21 AM:
Open your eyes Max.. the Frog, the Globe, the living room scene are all examples or true multi color 3d printing.. with vertical as well as horizontal color changes..
Max wrote at 2/23/2016 9:13:55 PM:
Where is this different from a normal dual or triple extruder system? The examples and test prints are rather meaningless. Look at that geological relief. It only has differently colored layerd that are stacked together. I don't see true multi-color 3d printing here.
Lois and John Place wrote at 2/23/2016 7:56:39 PM:
CONGRATULATIONS to MOSAIC and it's team. Your make your families and friends very proud to be associated with such a group of inventive young folks. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK.