The Future of Manufacturin

By: Brian L.

The advent of 3D printing technology has already begun changing the paradigm of the manufacturing industry as a whole. 3D printing allows the users to produce small quantities of many different products using a variety of high-performance materials, which would have been deemed impossible in the traditional industry, granting the users with so much more freedom and flexibility in what they create. Now, instead of spending money and time on machines that create the products, companies and private owners can use the 3D CAD(computer aided design) programs to fabricate their imaginations into real items. Already there are companies that utilize the technology to manufacture products that would have required expertise in traditional industries, such as making complex products that would have otherwise had to be handmade, or would have required complex machinery to build them, as well as high demand, because otherwise the cost would have been too high. But at this stage of development, 3D printing technology still has a long way to go. Even though there have been many developments, the production scale is small and it takes a long time compared to injection molding or casting. A potential alternative to this problem could be a new process called Rapid Liquid Printing, created by MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab.

Created by MIT in collaboration with the US furniture giant, Steelcase, rapid liquid printing utilizes a method in which products are directly ‘drawn into’ a liquid gel suspension, allowing for much more customization. 3D printing usually meant creating products in a layer-by-layer fashion, but rapid liquid printing involves direct injection of materials into the gel, physically ‘drawing’ the objects into existence. It looks and feels like magic, on top of that, there are virtually no limits to its scale, depending on the size of the liquid gel suspension tank. Skylar Tibbits, co-director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab with Jared Laucks said in an interview with Wired, “The size limit is really only constrained by the size of the machine and the quantity of gel. But it could also be used for smaller printed structures with high-resolution features, but they would likely be slower to print.”

This could be a real breakthrough for the field of engineering and chemistry, as the innovative process enables so much more freedom than the layer-by-layer process, and already the team has worked with materials like plastics, rubbers, and polyurethanes, but this isn’t all. Tibbits says, ”the gel is similar to a hair gel or hand-sanitiser and has two key functions. The first is that it can suspend objects so that we aren’t fighting gravity and we don’t require layer-by-layer printing or support materials, which are time consuming to print. This means that a part can be printed quickly within the gel and then removed and simply washed off with water. The second is that the gel self-heals after the nozzle passes through. This allows you to continuously move and print within the gel and not create tunnels or cavities which would fill up with printed material.”

The first creative application of the process was showcased recently, in Milan’s Furniture Fair, with product designer, Christophe Guberan. The team created a collection of experimental furniture, involving table tops for Bassline, which was the largest thing they had printed so far, involving a meter-long tank.

The Rapid Liquid Printing is still in its phase of research, but Tibbits sounds optimistic about the plans for further development. They’re “excited to experiment with new materials [looking to create] larger printed structures and faster, more efficient processes.” This new process could potentially be the technology that changes the paradigm after solid 3D printing revolutionized it, and even though it is still in its research phase, it is nevertheless innovative and exciting to watch its progress.

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