Rapid Liquid Printing: 3D Printing 2.0

Transforming manufacturing

3D printing is already an efficient production technique, complimenting the transformation of manufacturing from a repetitive assembly line into a customisable, personalised industry. However, there’s always room for improvement. Developers want to improve the efficiency of 3D printing to make quality products at an even faster rate. In collaboration with the Self Assembly Lab at MIT, furniture and interior design company Steelcase is experimenting with a new method called Rapid Liquid Printing. Instead of the regular layer upon layer technique, Rapid Liquid Printing deposits materials into a gel and then chemically cures them into a solid design. The finished product is then removed from the gel.

The evolution of 3D printing

3D printing is strongly influencing development in manufacturing and production. By thinking innovatively about materials and methods, the Self Assembly Lab (led by 3D printing pioneer Skylar Tibbits) has created 3D printing 2.0. It’s faster, easier and cheaper than stereolithography, and there are no limits to the scale of what can be printed (provided you have a big enough vat of liquid). Yuka Hiyoshi, senior industrial designer at Steelcase, describes the process as an art form comparable to an artist’s brushstrokes. This allows for precision which in turn leads to higher quality.

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According to Tibbits, the team at MIT has successfully experimented with plastics, foams, rubbers and metals. New ways of thinking about and improving 3D printing have been encouraged by more emphasis on Materials Science, the academic discipline which explores the properties and applications of different materials. This growing interest has inspired improvements in 3D printing. UK based design agency Fripp Design, for instance, is using a vat of silicone to make realistic prosthetic eyes. Looking forward, a number companies and researchers are pursuing 4D printing, which creates objects that can be manipulated by certain triggers after they are produced. In fact, the process was developed in MIT’s Self Assembly Lab itself, and has the potential to make objects even smarter.

How will Rapid Liquid Printing disrupt manufacturing?
Rapid Liquid Printing isn’t just about making 3D printing faster. It will change the way people think about manufacturing, allowing higher levels of product customisation by removing barriers to design. Currently 3D printed items rely on supportive structures to hold them up as they are printed, layer after layer. However, the technique developed by MIT removes the need to do this because the gel itself acts as a vacuum, suspending the product until it’s ready to be removed. This basically gives design teams far more freedom with what they are able to print, as demonstrated by Fripp and their creation of convincing replacement eyes. The ability to print even more complicated products could disrupt every single industry with manufacturing needs. In healthcare, for example, researchers may be one step closer to the creation of functional organs.

Rapid Liquid Printing could also be instrumental in the development of 4D printing. Combine smart, responsive materials with super efficient 3D production, and you’ve got a huge disruptive force with the potential to transform essentially any physical object. 3D printing has already affected construction, but what if on demand, 3D printed houses could take care of their own maintenance? Of course, this all depends on the success of 4D printing, and the affordability and the availability of the liquid gels. Silicone, for example, is common but expensive due to its quality and the high amounts of energy used in its manufacture. The idea of a vat of gel which could print rooms (let alone entire houses) is hard to visualise. Even so, businesses should take these possibilities seriously.

Through the manufacture of functional furniture, Steelcase and MIT have demonstrated that Rapid Liquid 3D Printing is a plausible improvement on existing 3D printing techniques. It’s quick, simple and cheap, and gives design and manufacturing teams greater freedom in terms of what they can print. Rapid Liquid Printing is also an enabler for the adoption of traditional stereolithography, as well as encouraging research into 4D printing. Although it’s a sector in its own right, manufacturing is integral to every industry. From a business perspective, companies should be prepared to face a whole new wave of disruption in production.

Could your business benefit from adopting new 3D printing methods? Will Rapid Liquid Printing replace existing stereolithography techniques? Which industries will be most disrupted by Rapid Liquid Printing? Share your thoughts and opinions.