Some people are calling this a 4D printer, and some are calling it a four-in-one 3D printer. Whatever you call it, there is a new printer in the development stages that could soon make it possible for you to literally print out your own smartphone, right in the comfort of your own home.
A prototype 3D printer has for the first time combined several printing methods to enable researchers to produce devices out of multiple materials in a single print run. So far the machine has created basic electronic devices, but the technology brings materials scientists a step closer to their goal of printing complex equipment such as robots or smartphones.
The printer is being presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 21 March.
“This is a remarkable technological advance and a great leap for the field of 3D printing,” says Xuanhe Zhao, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who was not involved in the work.
The most common 3D printers heat a plastic filament and lay it down in repeated lines, building a layered structure from the bottom up. This is the technique used in inexpensive consumer models. Several other 3D-printing methods have also emerged in recent years, including spraying fine streams of aerosols, printing with liquid resin that is then cured to form a flexible polymer, laying down thin layers of ink that are dried and hardened when exposed to light, and even printing ink that contains conductive nanoparticles, to produce wires and circuits.
“Each printing technology has its own limitations,” says Jerry Qi, a materials scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who led the design of the multimaterial printer. “We put four 3D-printing technologies under one platform.”
Although current 3D printers can already produce electronic parts and devices made of multiple materials, if a structure requires more than one printing method, a different machine is required for each. But moving an object from one printer to another is usually impractical for the micrometre-level precision that is required in 3D printing, and is inefficient if multiple materials are used in a single layer, says Qi.
His team’s multimaterial printer has printheads — the nozzles that produce the material — for each of the four techniques on a single printing platform. Each has its own software, lights for curing the materials, and a moving platform and robot arms that can pick up and place components. This allows the printheads to work together to build single layers with multiple materials. “It is a very smart solution to this challenge,” says Zhou.
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Contributed by Paul Gordon of iState TV.