University of Missouri researchers develop a new multi-material 3D printer

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University of Missouri researchers have built a new multi-material 3D printer
University of Missouri researchers have built a new multi-material 3D printer/Source: University of Missouri

Researchers at the University of Missouri have developed a method for creating complex devices out of multiple materials, such as plastics, metals, and semiconductors, using a single machine. This new multi-material 3D printer, known as the Freeform Multi-material Assembly Process, has the potential to revolutionise the manufacturing of new products.

The study, which was recently published in Nature Communications, describes a new 3D printing and laser process for producing multi-material, multi-layered sensors, circuit boards, and even textiles with electronic components.

Multi-material 3D printer

Doctoral student Bujingda Zheng uses a 3D printing and laser process to manufacture multi-material, multi-layered sensors, circuit boards and textiles with electronic components
Doctoral student Bujingda Zheng uses a 3D printing and laser process to manufacture multi-material, multi-layered sensors, circuit boards and textiles with electronic components/Source: University of Missouri

By printing sensors embedded within a structure, the machine can create objects that can detect environmental conditions such as temperature and pressure. Other researchers may consider having a natural-looking object, such as a rock or seashell, to measure the movement of ocean water. Wearable devices that monitor blood pressure and other vital signs could be useful for the general public.

“This is the first time this type of process has been used, and it’s unlocking new possibilities. I’m excited about the design. I’ve always wanted to do something that no one has ever done before, and I’m getting to do that here at Mizzou.”

– Bujingda Zheng, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Mizzou and the lead author of the study.

One of the primary advantages is that innovators can focus on designing new products rather than worrying about how to prototype them.

Jian “Javen” Lin, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Mizzou said, “This opens the possibility for entirely new markets. It will have broad impacts on wearable sensors, customizable robots, medical devices and more.”

Revolutionary techniques

Currently, manufacturing a multi-layered structure, such as a printed circuit board, can be a time-consuming process involving numerous steps and materials. These processes are expensive, time-consuming, and can produce waste that pollutes the environment.

The new technique is not only more environmentally friendly, but it is also inspired by natural systems.

“Everything in nature consists of structural and functional materials,” Zheng said. “For example, electrical eels have bones and muscles that enable them to move. They also have specialized cells that can discharge up to 500 volts to deter predators. These biological observations have inspired researchers to develop new methods for fabricating 3D structures with multi-functional applications, but other emerging methods have limitations.”

An example of electrodes printed inside of a plastic material
An example of electrodes printed inside of a plastic material/Source: University of Missouri

Other techniques fall short in terms of material versatility and the precision with which smaller components can be placed within larger 3D structures.

To solve these problems, the Mizzou team employs specialised techniques. Team members created a machine with three different nozzles: one adds ink-like material, another uses a laser to carve shapes and materials, and the third adds more functional materials to improve the product’s capabilities. It begins by creating a basic structure using standard 3D printing filament, such as polycarbonate, a type of transparent thermoplastic. Then it uses a laser to convert some parts into a special material known as laser-induced graphene, which is then applied precisely where it is required. Finally, additional materials are added to improve the functional capabilities of the finished product.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Manufacturing programme is funding this research, and the NSF I-Corps™ programme is providing funds to investigate commercialisation possibilities.

According to Lin, “The I-Corps program is helping us identify market interests and needs. Currently, we believe it would be of interest to other researchers, but we believe it will ultimately benefit businesses. It will shorten fabrication time for device prototyping by allowing companies to make prototypes in house. This technology, available only at Mizzou, shows great promise for transforming the way products are fabricated and manufactured.”

About Manufactur3D Magazine: Manufactur3D is an online magazine on 3D Printing. Visit our Tech News page for more updates on Global 3D Printing News. To stay up-to-date about the latest happenings in the 3D printing world, like us on Facebook or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Abhimanyu Chavan is the founder of Manufactur3D Magazine. He writes on Additive Manufacturing technology, interviews industry leaders, shares industry insights, and expresses his thoughts on the latest developments in the industry. You can follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.
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