Image Credit: Self-Assembly Lab, MIT / Christophe Guberan / Steelcase

 

3D printing has long suffered from a few key struggles: scalability, time intensity, and part quality. The MIT self-assembly lab in conjunction with Steelcase has developed a new method of 3D printing which relies not on support structures and layering, but on gel stabilization and binary chemicals to create solid surfaces in an expedient manner.

 

This new method of printing, called Rapid Liquid Printing (RLP) extrudes shapes in a stabilizing gel which harden due to the combination of two chemicals as they leave the printing nozzle. This method of printing allows for the creation of stable free-form shapes in minutes.

 

The MIT self-assembly lab printed an object in minutes which would have taken hours through the use of more traditional 3D printing methods. According to NewAtlas, during their presentation at Milan Design Week, they printed a latticework coffee table top in 28 minutes.

 

How does RLP address size scaling in 3D printing?

 

Traditional 3D printing methods require a base layer on which the extrusion occurs as well as a printing head capable of feeding heated layers of plastics, powders, and other materials onto the base layer. For some printers, they also must include a laser in the printing head to heat and fuse powders into solid object, resulting in hot and power-intensive processes.

 

The collaborative work of the MIT self-assembly lab and Steelcase has removed the scalability limitation by combining binary chemicals in a stable gel until the compounds complete their reaction and result in solid substances. The core concept allows for printing at the scale of whatever size of gel vat and machine are being used. In the case of the Milan demonstration, it was a vat capable of holding a full-sized coffee table top and a similarly large 3D printer.

 

How does RLP allow faster printing than traditional 3D printing methods?

 

Speed of printing has been a struggle in traditional 3D printing endeavors because layers had to be extruded and fused, a slow process, resulting in hour and day long print times. The core cause of this slowness is the thickness of each layer required, as thicker materials require more heat and pressure to solidify into the appropriate shape, provided gravity does not deform them.

GIF courtesy of: designboom 

 

RLP alleviates the speed barrier because it eliminates one of the stronger forces working against classic 3D printing: gravity. RLP uses stabilizing gel to allow free-form shapes to be printed and solidify free of gravitic forces. RLP also prints in single strokes, as opposed to layers, which can be adjusted according to the shape and size of the nozzle from which the fluids are extruded. RLP has been shown to reduce some printing times from more than 2 days to a few minutes.

 

How does RLP improve part quality?

 

Part quality has always been somewhat lacking in terms of classical 3D printing due to the weakness caused by printing and fusing layers. 3D printing is in many ways like metalcraft. Layering welds over top of one another can end in contamination or degraded structural integrity, while fusing layers of metal with welds typically results in a strong, reliable structure.

 

RLP extrudes the base compound rather than using a rigid plastic or other compound to provide support until the core structure is stable and cool. As the chemicals leave the nozzle, they begin hardening, the gel simply alleviates the force of gravity and allows them to harden. By removing the layering aspect of 3D printing, part quality can be significantly increased.

 

Conclusion

 

RLP, a collaborative effort between Steelcase and the MIT self-assembly lab helps to alleviate the barriers of traditional 3D printing methods to real-world printing applications. By alleviating those barriers in their experiment, they have opened the door to a new way of rapid prototyping that may one day become more cost effective than traditional methods as well as more widely accepted. RLP is currently being studied for furniture printing.