Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Anyone who has printed out a 3D object knows that waiting for the final product takes patience. Now engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a desktop 3D printer that performs up to 10 times faster than existing commercial models.
On average, commercial desktop extrusion 3D printers that are available on the market print at an average rate of about 20 cubic centimetres per hour. MIT claims that this is equivalent to a few Lego bricks' worth of 3D printed structures per hour.
In a paper published in the Additive Manufacturing journal, MIT professor John Hart and graduate student Jamison Go identified why the 3D printing process is so slow and presented their solution.
According to the team, current 3D printers are hindered by the limited speeds of the printer heads as they form the item, the force applied to the material coming through the printer and the low heating capacity of the machines. The researchers have developed a printer that improves on these problems using a laser, a specialized screw and a high-speed gantry. The screw mechanism increases the force on the polymer material, pushing it through the printer's nozzle while the laser rapidly heats the material.
The engineers demonstrated their design by creating various detailed, hand-held 3D objects, including small eyeglass frames, a bevel gear and a miniature replica of the MIT dome — each, from start to finish, took only a few minutes to print.
This is still an academic project and MIT says its technology needs more fine-tuning before it can be commercialised. But if the method can be viably implemented, it could create new applications for 3D printing and expand the market for printers. At present, these machines are commonly used for rapid prototyping and developing one-off products. However, MIT points to new opportunities in emergency medicine, wider use in remote locations, and to enable mass customisation.
Recent advances make 3D printing a powerful rival to conventional mass production, with the ability to replicate or create complex and ingenious shapes from plastic. Companies like GE have invested heavily on metal printing, but this is a difficult and costly process. If this technology is mastered, 3D printers could be the factories of the future.