While many creators look at 3-D printing as a technology full of endless potential, designers Petr Novikov and Saša Jokić saw something with room for improvement.
"There is a variety of different 3-D printing types […] and no matter how they work, they all work with layers," explains Novikov. Machines extrude plastic layer by layer until the desired shape slowly accrues. "We thought that this is strange because layers are not very efficient": they require the presence of a support structure to prop up an object as it’s printed, which restricts the printing process to horizontal surfaces. Plus the technique can increase the printing time, the use of materials, and the risk of damaging an object when removing it from its support structure.
Novikov and Jokić, who were studying at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona last fall, wondered about printing with fibers instead of layers. Since then, as part of an internship at Amsterdam’s Joris Laarman Lab, they’ve worked to research, design, and patent a new method for 3-D printing called Mataerial, which squeezes polymers from a nozzle in a way that’s reminiscent of how bakers squeeze icing from a tube to frost a cake.
"The material that comes out of the nozzle is still kind of viscous—It’s not a liquid already but its not a solid material, so what we wanted to do is make it solid the same exact moment it comes out of the nozzle," Novikov says. "And that’s the hardest part. Because if it solidifies before it comes out of the nozzle, then its going to make a clog… but if it solidifies after it leaves the nozzle, than its going to be weak and fall down."
The secret was finding two liquid polymers that, when mixed, quickly harden. They’re calling the resulting method "Anti-Gravity Object Modeling," since the material’s just-in-time solidification eschews the need for any sort of support structure, turning hard in mid-air.
The new method is exciting for a number of reasons. While their demonstration video shows a large robotic arm moving the nozzle, the size could easily be scaled up or down, according to Novikov, to print with a nozzle that’s narrower than 1 mm, or as big as a professional 3-D printer, to be used for furniture design or architectural construction.
The technology also allows for precise control over color and width of the tube, in real time as it’s printed. Syringes with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black coloring connect to the tube, and changing the proportions allows for customization of the color. Slowing down the robotic arm can also change the thickness of the tube.
But perhaps what’s most exciting, in the context of recent conversations about using 3-D printers to build bases on the moon or Mars: "We did an investigation and we are pretty sure that this could be used as 3-D printer in zero gravity," Novikov says.
NASA, are you out there?