Sustainability-in-Tech : New 3D Printer Automatically Identifies Different Sustainable Materials

1st May 2024

There’s an increasing range of renewable and recyclable materials now available yet 3D printers have historically been limited by the need to create new parameter sets for each one. However, MIT researchers have now made a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of unknown materials on its own.

Overcoming The Parameter Limitations 

The problem with having to 3D print a new material from scratch up until now has been that typically at least 100 parameters must be set up in the software which controls how the printer will extrude the material as it fabricates an object. The materials commonly used for 3D printing (e.g. mass-manufactured polymers) already have established sets of parameters (that were only perfected through lengthy trial-and-error processes).

Now, with the need to use more renewable and recyclable materials (the properties of which can fluctuate widely based on their composition) making fixed parameter sets in the 3D printer for each one is nearly impossible to create, with the only option to date being users having to set all the parameters by hand.

However, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) appear to have solved this problem by developing a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of an unknown material on its own.

How? 

The new 3D printer is able to work out the parameters for different materials thanks to a modified extruder which can measure the forces and flow of a material. A load cell measures the pressure being exerted on the printing filament, and a feed rate sensor measures the thickness of the filament and the actual rate at which it is being fed through the printer.

The data gathered by the new extruder (via the load cell and feed rate sensor, in a 20-minute test) can then be fed into a mathematical function that is used to automatically generate printing parameters. The parameters can then be entered into off-the-shelf 3D printing software and used to print with a never-before-seen material.

In experiments with six different materials, several of which were bio-based, the new 3D printer was able to automatically generate viable parameters that consistently led to successful prints of a complex object.

As lead researcher Neil Gershenfeld, pointed out: “The goal is to make 3D printing more sustainable”. 

Opens The Door For More Recycled and Bio-based Materials 

Looking ahead, as noted by Alysia Garmulewicz, an associate professor in the Faculty of Administration and Economics at the University of Santiago in Chile: “By developing a new method for the automatic generation of process parameters for fused filament fabrication, this study opens the door to the use of recycled and bio-based filaments that have variable and unknown behaviours. Importantly, this enhances the potential for digital manufacturing technology to utilise locally sourced sustainable materials.” 

Also, the researchers have said that they will be applying their discovery in other areas of advanced manufacturing, as well as in expanding access to metrology (the scientific study of measurement).

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

This discovery by the MIT researchers could be a significant advancement for businesses looking to embrace green manufacturing practices. This breakthrough not only saves time (and money) and simplifies the 3D printing process but also offers the potential for companies to innovate in ways that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.

For businesses, the implications of this technology go far beyond the mere convenience of automation. This printer could enable the use of a wider range of renewable and recyclable materials, significantly reducing dependency on traditional, often non-sustainable materials. As a result, organisations may be able to lower their environmental impact and align more closely with evolving regulations and consumer expectations regarding sustainability.

The ability of this printer to handle materials with variable and unknown behaviours also opens the door to using more locally sourced materials. This could be particularly beneficial for businesses aiming to reduce their carbon footprint by minimising the logistics associated with transporting materials. Also, it enhances the potential for creating more personalised and localised products, catering to specific market demands with greater agility.

The discovery of this new 3D technology could also bring further innovations in digital manufacturing. It may help businesses to explore new product designs and applications without the extensive time and cost previously involved in trial-and-error parameter setting. This may not only accelerate product development but may also make small-scale, bespoke production runs more feasible and cost-effective.

Crucially, the incorporation of more recycled and bio-based materials into mainstream manufacturing processes, facilitated by this new technology, could help more businesses contribute to a circular economy. This shift may help conserve natural resources and also open up new business opportunities in the recycling sector. Companies that can efficiently convert waste into valuable printing materials may be more likely to thrive in an increasingly resource-conscious market.