MIT Researchers Look to 3-D Printing for Next-Gen Manufacturing

September 20, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

One of the 3-D printers at work in the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab. (Melanie Gonick)
One of the 3-D printers at work in the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab. (Melanie Gonick)
New 3-D printing techniques in the works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) could bring manufacturing into a new age, throwing out the old forms of production.

“We’re moving into an area where things will no longer be mass produced,” and where products built with 3-D printing can be customized to each person’s liking, Media Lab IP consultant Bob Swartz stated, according to the MIT Media Lab.

Working with a former student, Swartz has printed working clocks complete with gears, chains, and all the surface features. The clocks would work after powder used in the printing process was washed off.

Two MIT engineering professors, Michael Cima and Emanuel Sachs, take credit for patenting one of the first practical 3-D printers in 1993. The printers were originally intended for professionals working with 3-D design software and would allow them to print out physical models of their designs. This would speed up the otherwise tedious prototyping process by creating quick concept models.

Cima told the MIT Media Lab that his particular interest was to “be able to rapidly prototype surgical tools, and get them into surgeons’ hands to get feedback.”

The printers work by building a model one layer at a time, using thin layers of powder on a platform. A printer head sweeps over the powder and lays down a binder liquid that makes the powder solid. After one layer is finished, the machines lower the platform, lay down another layer of powder, and then the printer head sweeps over again.

This technique was later expanded on by MIT researchers who enabled the devices to print metal objects and to use color. Not only can 3-D printing work with metals, but it also opens new doors in the field.

POSCO Professor of Physical Metallurgy Samuel Allen, who spent a decade developing the metal-printing process, stated that 3-D printing made it possible to make “parts you could not make through conventional machining,” according to MIT Media Lab.

The technology can already build somewhat complex, moving parts, as Swartz demonstrated with his 3-D printed clocks, but the amount of time it takes to print anything limits it to creating small numbers of prototypes.

Printing the clocks, for example, took close to 100 hours each, which is “completely impractical for any kind of mass production,” Swartz said, yet added that he believes there can be improvements in the production speed, and that, if nothing else, the technology “changes the way we think about production.”

Other researchers hold a similar view. One of the latest projects aims to construct a complete building using 3-D printing. This is being headed by Neri Oxman, the Media Lab’s Sony Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and graduate student Steven Keating.

The reasoning for using 3-D printing over concrete and wood is that it opens new doors for design, printing intricate, organic shapes, and it would let them use materials stronger and lighter than concrete.

Keating gave an example, comparing the difference between a palm tree and a concrete column, noting that unlike in the typical man-made column, in nature there is varying density of materials—denser on the outside and lighter on the inside.

“Nature always uses graded materials,” Keating says, according to MIT Media Lab. “It gives you a high strength-to-weight ratio. You don’t see that in man-made materials.”

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