This 3D Printer Can Print in Plastic and Metal and Use Lasers. Its Goal: To Make Things Without the Need to Assemble Them

  • Due to a unique process, this printer can also print circuits on objects like stone or seashells.

  • It has enormous potential to speed up prototyping.

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3D printing isn’t just for plastic anymore. While plastic is still widely used, you can also print with metal, cement, and even chocolate. In fact, you can also use your own plastic bottles for printing. However, traditional 3D printing methods don’t allow different materials to be printed together or at the same time. For example, it’s not possible to print a layer of plastic and then print metal on top of it to create a base plate.

Until now. That’s changing with a new 3D printer.

Freeform Multi-material Assembly Process. This innovative process, developed by 3D printing researcher Bujingda Zheng and his team at the University of Missouri, combines 3D printing and lasers to create sensors, circuit boards, and fabrics with components made from multiple materials and layers. According to Zheng, “This is the first time this type of process has been used, and it’s unlocking new possibilities.”

A case in point. Imagine you plan to create a sensor using a 3D printer. The process begins with printing a plastic base plate. Once you obtain it, you’ll need to proceed to install the circuits and put everything together to ensure it functions properly. This requires delicate hands (or another machine), precise instruments, and some skill and patience to place them on your 3D-printed board. After assembling everything, the sensor is ready to use. Time spent: quite a lot. Resulted in waste: probably. Resources needed: many.

With this new 3D printer, the complex process is simplified and able to be carried out by a single machine that operates in a rather unique way.

3D Printer An example of electrodes printed inside a plastic material. | Image: University of Missouri

How the printer works. A typical 3D printer has a single nozzle for extruding plastic, but the device developed by the University of Missouri features three nozzles. After printing the base using a plastic-like polycarbonate, the first nozzle prints an ink-like material. The second nozzle utilizes a laser to carve shapes and transform some parts of the previous material into laser-induced graphene, creating the circuit. The third nozzle adds the remaining materials to ensure the 3D-printed component functions properly.

What does this mean? In short, this printer is capable of printing sensors directly onto a structure. This includes printing a motion sensor on a seashell to study currents or printing a sensor on a T-shirt that can measure body temperature or heart rate. Additionally, it has the potential to reduce the time spent on prototyping significantly.

Image | University of Missouri

Related | HP CEO Provides Details on the Significant Decline in Printing Since the Pandemic: It’s Bad News for the Company’s Business

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