The company, a startup out of MIT, says it is working to bring all of the benefits of 3D printing to a slew of products that have never been printed before – and at volumes that would radically disrupt production processes in a variety of industries. To do so, the company is pairing its multimaterial inkjet 3-D printer with machine-vision and machine-learning systems.
The vision system comprehensively scans each layer of the object as it’s being printed to correct errors in real-time, while the machine-learning system uses that information to predict the warping behavior of materials and make more accurate final products. The result, says the company, unlocks a range of potential applications.
The printer can print more flexible materials much more accurately than other printers. If an object, including a computer chip or other electronic component, is placed on the print area, the machine can precisely print materials around it. And when an object is complete, the machine keeps a digital replica that can be used for quality assurance.
“Everyone knows the advantages of 3D printing are enormous,” says Inkbit co-founder and CEO Davide Marini PhD. “But most people are experiencing problems adopting it. The technology just isn’t there yet.”
“Our machine is the first one that can learn the properties of a material and predict its behavior,” says Marini. “I believe it will be transformative, because it will enable anyone to go from an idea to a usable product extremely quickly. It opens up business opportunities for everyone.”
The “eyes” of the machine use a custom optical coherence tomography (OCT) scanner that, says the company, is 100 times faster than anything else on the market today. It uses long wavelengths of light to see through the surface of materials and scan layers of material at a resolution the fraction of the width of a human hair.
When a layer is printed and scanned, the company’s proprietary machine-vision and machine-learning systems automatically correct any errors in real time and proactively compensate for the warping and shrinkage behavior of a fickle material. Those processes, says the company, further expand the range of materials it is able to print with by removing the rollers and scrapers used by some other printers to ensure precision, which tend to jam when used with difficult-to-print materials.
Designed to allow users to prototype and manufacture new objects on the same machine, the company’s industrial printer has 16 print heads to create multimaterial parts and a print block big enough to produce hundreds of thousands of fist-sized products each year (or smaller numbers of larger products). The machine’s contactless inkjet design means increasing the size of later iterations will be as simple as expanding the print block.
“Before, people could make prototypes with multimaterial printers, but they couldn’t really manufacture final parts,” says Inkbit co-founder Wojciech Matusik, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “This is something that’s not possible using any other manufacturing methods.”
The company says it will begin selling printed products later this year, starting with a pilot with Johnson and Johnson, before selling its printers next year. If it can leverage current interest from companies that sell medical devices, consumer products, and automotive components, the company expects its machines will be playing a leading production role in a host of multi-billion-dollar markets in the next few years, from dental aligners to industrial tooling and sleep apnea masks.