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Summary:

Oak Ridge National Laboratory and 3D Systems have been working on two very different takes on how to make 3D printers faster.

Cincinnati Inc. BAAM 3D printer
photo: Cincinnati Inc.

3D printers are slow; so slow that in the time it would take to print a screwdriver, you could just drive to the store and pick one up with a half hour to spare. And that’s a problem when a manufacturing job calls for creating units as quickly as possible.

And the frustrating thing is that existing 3D printers could technically print faster. It’s just a matter of using an extruder that puts out thicker ropes of material, allowing the printer to lay down more material with the same number of movements. But thicker layers means sacrificing the printer’s resolution, because the place where one layer ends and the next begins becomes obvious.

So a national lab and a corporation set out in the past year to completely reinvent the concept of the 3D printer. Here’s what they are working on.

Oak Ridge’s monster machine

Oak Ridge National Laboratory decided to make a faster printer by embracing thicker layers. Using Cincinnati Inc.’s huge BAAM 3D printer, it is working toward a machine that could print 200 to 500 times faster than a standard desktop 3D printer.

A few more details about the Oak Ridge-Cincinnati partnership emerged today on 3DPrint.com, which reported that BAAM is capable of printing objects as large as tables and chairs by extruding plastic in layers 0.3 inches wide. Chairs recently on display at the RAPID conference each took about 2 hours and 30 minutes to print. On a normal printer, a chair would take days to print and need to be printed in pieces.

 

The BAAM 3D printer. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Inc.

The BAAM 3D printer. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Inc.

The site also reported that Oak Ridge is considering processing 3D printed objects after they are printed so that they appear smooth. This could involve sanding or treating the plastic with a chemical like acetone, which is commonly used to make desktop printed items smooth.

The lab plans to take orders for the machine around the end of the year, according to 3DPrint.com, and will be capable of producing just a handful every year.

3D Systems bets on the assembly line

Tasked with printing the tiny, highly customized modules that will go into Google’s Project Ara phones, 3D Systems turned to an old concept: the assembly line. The resulting machine, which was described this week, is basically a series of 3D printers along a track. The printers deposit different colors and types of materials on phones whizzing past them on an oval-shaped track.

Project Ara phones whiz around an oval-shaped track lined with 3D printers. Photo courtesy of 3D Systems.

Project Ara phones whiz around an oval-shaped track lined with 3D printers. Photo courtesy of 3D Systems.

The system is an ingenious way to work around the typically tricky process of building a full-color 3D printer, which uses just one or a few nozzles to switch back and forth between colors. 3D Systems does make a line of color printers, but even the largest units would have trouble keeping up with the volume of phones Google expects to need.

We’ve become accustomed to plastic-based 3D printers that use one extruder to slowly go back and forth laying down layer after layer of material. But Oak Ridge and 3D Systems are proving that there are other ways, and in the future other techniques could trickle down to desktop 3D printers. The Robox, for example, uses one extruder that prints a large volume of plastic, while a second extruder prints thin strands to add detail.

The first desktop 3D printers, which have driven heavy interest in the 25 year old professional printer industry, only appeared 10 years ago. As the industry continues to mature and become more competitive, it’s safe to say that even more approaches will emerge.