Apr 25, 2017 | By Julia

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have teamed up with Michigan-based furniture manufacturer Steelcase to develop a new method of 3D printing. Rapid Liquid Printing (RLP), as it’s been dubbed, allows for the quick production of large objects using materials already found in other industrial processes. Currently under development, the new additive manufacturing method could be a game-changer in the burgeoning field of customizing office furniture.

While RLP still very much fits under the 3D printing umbrella, the new system looks quite different from conventional 3D printing techniques. Instead of printing layer by layer, the RLP process begins with a large tank of industrial gel. Thanks to a nozzle extruding a two-part liquid polyurethane into the gel, which mixes the two liquids together, RLP can manufacture a solid object in a matter of minutes. The 3D printed item is then be separated from the gel and rinsed off with plain water, removing the need for a curing process.

The result is a production material that can be created almost instantly, say RLP developers. In this respect, traditional 3D printing is still leagues behind.

"Our process does not print with layers, does not need support materials, can be printed in seconds to minutes and uses everyday industrial liquid materials," explains Skylar Tibbits, executive director at the MIT Self-Assembly Lab.

RLP becomes even more significant when considering Steelcase’s involvement in the project. “We’re looking at interesting opportunities for our company," says Rob Poel, director of new business innovation at Steelcase. "There's been a rising demand in the workplace for personalization and customization. Companies are looking for ways to attract employees - this is one of them."

While 3D printed office furniture may already be a rapidly expanding (and increasingly lucrative) field in and of itself, Tibbits believes RLP may well change the face of 3D printing. According to the Self-Assembly Lab director, 3D printing currently struggles with a relatively slow rate of production, exclusive industrial materials, and a focus on smaller items. RLP, on the other hand, can change that; the new system is fast and uses materials already established by traditional manufacturing methods.

RLP may also create opportunities for new kinds of 3D printing to emerge, says Tibbits, since it’s now possible to create a single object with different thicknesses.

“As a designer, what’s most fascinating and unique about Rapid Liquid Printing is the line quality of the print," said Yuka Hiyoshi, a senior industrial designer at Steelcase. "It’s soft, almost organic. When you’re printing freely within a gel suspension, you can create these dynamic shapes without the traditional 3D printing support material and structure.” There is a natural fluidity to the print that’s unseen in other techniques, she added.

RLP allows for different line thicknesses within a single extrusion

Though the future may be bright for RLP, Tibbits acknowledges the new system is still in its infancy. The development still has a long way to go before it meets testing standards, say developers. Costs have to be taken into account, as well as the overall viability of the process.

But the process has officially been invented, with some early design applications already exhibited. “It’s exciting and promising,” Poel says.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

 

 

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