A collaborative effort involving furniture maker Steelcase, MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab headed by Skylar Tibbits, and product designer Christophe Guberan is poised to push 3D printing technology to unprecedented heights as their breakthrough technique can speed up the process of printing from hours to just minutes.
3D printing’s potential to revolutionize the field of manufacturing is well-accepted, but there are a number of constraints it has to overcome, most notably, speed, scale and quality.
As it is, the current 3D printing process is a slow, laborious one as building an object has to be done one layer at a time. Depending on what material is being used, the size of the object being built and the intricacy of its design, the process could take hours or days to be completed.
There’s an added challenge when soft material is being used. Because such needs to cool and harden, temporary support structures have to be incorporated into the design, otherwise, gravity will just pull it down and prevent it from being built completely.
To work around this, the team developed a new technique in which the printing process happens within a container filled with a thick gel suspension designed to nullify the pull of gravity. Instead of being limited to moving in just two directions and doing it layer by layer, the gel provides the needed support to draw and build a 3D object, also considerably helping accelerate the process. Even better, this technique which they call Rapid Liquid Printing allows for large-scale printing, meaning, the bigger the machine is, the bigger the products it can print.
What differentiates this new process from conventional printing is the use of a specialized gel for support, and the use of a two-part mixing procedure. Instead of the typical method of using light or temperature to let the material set or harden — which is what slows down the process — it makes use of chemicals for curing. This way, the material is cured while 3D printing is in progress. There’s no waiting time because the printed material hardens as soon as it comes in contact with the gel. Once done, the printed object can simply be pulled out of the container and rinsed off.
As demonstrated at the recently held Milan Design Week, it took only 28 minutes to print a bassline table top with an intricate design. And in another experiment, the team managed to print a structure in only 10 minutes, instead of what can typically take 50 hours to complete using traditional 3D printing.
There’s even more good news about this method. It’s fast. It enables building of large objects. And it churns out a remarkable design quality.
As reported by DesignBoom, senior industrial designer Yuka Hiyoshi of Steelcase brand Turnstone had this to say about the process: “As a designer, what’s most fascinating and unique about rapid liquid printing is the line quality of the print. It’s soft, almost organic. It evokes images of brushstrokes or the branches of plants.”
According to the team, rapid liquid printing works with any industrial liquid material including foam, plastic and rubber. They are currently in the process of perfecting the technique and determining which product it can best be used for.
Check out this video from Steelcase showing how Rapid Liquid Printing works.