Jun 2, 2016 | By Andre

Shortly after becoming interested in filament based 3D printing someone mentioned to me the similarity between pen-plotters from the 1980s. While I am a product of that decade, this plotting technology - which ultimately became obsolete thanks to laser and bubblejet printers - was initially foreign but ultimately an appropriate comparison upon brief investigation.

Now, some grey hairs and a few years on, I am almost compelled to make the same comparison betwen xPrint, a modularized liquid printer being developed by researchers at MIT.

Their machine runs off of coordinate based G-code (the same general instruction set used for 3D printing) and deposits material down onto a two-dimensional surface just like the plotters of yesteryear. But, just like how 3D printing was different in scope to those old-timey plotters, the xPrint is comfortably at home in today’s cutting edge as well.

The xPrint is an opensource plotter that’s built with off-the-shelf parts and can print using a range of synthesized polymers and natural micro-organism-living cells with incredible accuracy (10 micron up to 5mm) thanks in part to the modular nature of the print head. So instead of printing with traditional ink, we suddenly find ourselves with the ability to create using space-aged liquid composites that benefit researchers (drug delivery systems), artists (colour changing patterns) and anyone that works in textiles thanks to Natto cells printing.

The research paper behind the xPrint discusses inspiration from the maker community (even extracting influence from syringe based chocolate 3D printers) and detail how utilizing an open-source mindset was a major driving force for the project. Noting that current systems that are capable of creating smart materials are crippled by “unavoidable hardware configuration constraints and non-open sourced firmware.”

The xPrint thus presents “a clear strategy for HCI (human computer interaction) researchers to build their own deposition digital printer to process liquid materials with off-the-shelf components and easily machinable parts in a short time.” This open-nature means that although it is a two-dimensional unit at its core, it is compatible with 3D printing based g-code as well.

The paper discusses how research projects in the past, such as a 3D printing system that allows you to create 3D structures with conductive materials had been developed as a one off project with little documentation for machine reproduction. The modular nature of the xPrint means all you need to do is swap to the material of your choice (space-age or otherwise) and input the extrusion variables into the software.

At its core, the machine includes a standard three-axis CNC platform, two mounting substrates for attaching modular components, and a central control system. Modifications such as ventilation, a UV Curing lamp, webcam, and pneumatic pressure dispenser have all been tested out on materials dependant on them.

The more I think about it, there’s no reason the classical plotter shouldn’t be reborn and rejuvenated as a modular, smart liquid systems like the xPrint. Technology doesn’t have to die after all. Just like VR is being reborn after being left-for-dead in the early 1990s, a new twist at coordinate based print mechanisms is seeing new life thanks to low-cost FDM 3D printers and research projects like the xPrint.

Also, looking at the teams mindset moving forward, it seems like this is just the beginning. Challenges involving material viscosity and curing time, axis control and speed, as well as multi-material printing are things the team is hoping to work toward in the coming months.



Posted in 3D Printer



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jos hoebe wrote at 6/2/2016 12:19:07 PM:

what a very well nice thing. can be used for relief texture / pictures

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