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Multi-Material 3D Printing – 2018 Overview

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by Ricardo Pires
Sep 2, 2018

Additive manufacturing using multiple materials is an exciting avenue of research and development in 3D printing technology. Whether you're interested in multi-color or full multi-material printing, here we review the most current and interesting options available.

Multi-Material 3D Printing State of the Art

Multi-material flexible pliers made with PLA and TPU.
Multi-material flexible pliers made with PLA and TPU. Source: MyMiniFactory.com

Printing objects using several materials at once is arguably the key capability of additive manufacturing that could leverage its potential well beyond that of other current manufacturing methods. It can eliminate the need for assembly, throw away the need for post-processing stages (e.g. coloring), can promote the efficient design of multifunctional objects, and helps reduce not only manufacturing time but also costs.

At the consumer lever, development of multi-material 3D printers is being spearheaded by FDM technology. As FDM typically relies on a single filament per extruder, this creates a number of problems that are difficult to overcome. Luckily, over recent years we’ve witnessed some very ingenious solutions, which we’re happy to share with you now.

Multi-Material 3D Printing The Manual Way

Multi-color 3D print of Mike Wazowski from the movie Monsters Inc.
Multi-color 3D print of Mike Wazowski from the movie Monsters Inc. Source: Thingiverse

There are several ways in which you can print with multiple materials. With the most basic method, you don’t even need a special multi-material 3D printer. You can use any FDM printer, provided you can pause the printing process and exchange the filament at any point during the printing. If you fancy this idea, you’ll want to know how to Turn Your Single Extruder Into Multi-Color 3D Printer.

The obvious limitation in hacking your printing in this way is that it can be very troublesome to place material in specific regions of an XY layer. But you can easily produce objects with stacks of different colors (or materials).

Lack of control is one important limitation of this approach, which can be mitigated by editing the G-code itself. This can further be facilitated by writing a script, in a slicer program (such as Slic3r or Cura), that will pause the printing process. In this way, you can change the filament at specific locations.

Multi-Material 3D Printing Dual Extrusion

A dual extruder 3D printer.
A dual extruder 3D printer. Source: Leapfrog 3D Printers

To have better material control along the X, Y and Z axes, your best next thing is to have an otherwise normal printer, but fitted with two extruders. Dual extruder 3D printers can be easily found from many manufacturers. Just have a look at our 10 Best Dual Extruder 3D Printers of Summer of 2018.

With a multi-material 3D printer like this, you can print up to two colors at once. Often people like to use one extruder to print dissolvable supports that can easily be removed from the print. But you can also use them to print in two colors, or two materials that will be present in the end print.

Note that dual extruder printers normally come with a few limitations:

  • The presence of a second extruder will eat into the area that would be available for printing with a single extruder.
  • The chances of oozing and stringing become higher.
  • You may see layer-shifting defects if one of the extruders causes material deposited by the other to warp.

Multi-Material 3D Printing Palette 2

The Palette 2.
The Palette 2. Source: Mosaic Manufacturing

Another option is to turn your standard FDM printer into a multi-material 3D printer with accessory equipment. Devices exist that manage filament switching operations while at the same time delivering your print through a single extruder.

One of the most exciting options out there is the one proposed by Mosaic Manufacturing, who debuted the Palette back in 2016. The newest iteration is the Palette 2 and Palette 2 Pro.

What sets the concept of the Palette totally apart is that it splices and fuses sections of different filaments together. As such, by the time they arrive at the nozzle, the correct type of filament is being fused and deposited where it should be. You can combine up to four different filaments, and there seems to be no major restrictions regarding the combination of filaments made of different materials. When printing a multi-material object, there will be an accompanying purge block used to seamlessly switch between the two different materials.

Seamless integration with your FDM printer is in principle possible, with some manufacturers collaborating with Mosaic Manufacturing. They include Raise3D, MakerGear, Robo, gCreate, MAKEiT and Dremel. Nevertheless, printers outside this club need not feel cast aside. Since operation of Palette 2 is relatively straightforward when combined with the company’s Chroma software, it can be added to any printer.

In addition, the newly unveiled Canvas slicing software is expected to allow you to paint the object with different filaments, or assign different materials to different regions of your model.

Multi-Material 3D Printing Multi Material 2.0 Upgrade for the Prusa i3

3D printing a multi-material object along with its purge block.
3D printing a multi-material object along with its purge block. Source: PrusaPrinters.org

Another interesting alternative is the Multi Material 2.0 or MMU 2.0, from Prusa Research. Here, you can combine up to five different types of filaments. The MMU 2.0 unit acts upstream from the extruder, collecting all five filaments simultaneously and feeding the extruder the correct filament depending on the needs of the model.

Despite what it permits, there is one significant consequence of the MMU. For a multi-material object, there will be an accompanying purge block. The size and amount of material used to assemble the purge block cannot be underestimated and can, in some cases, consume more material than the object of interest.

Prusa is attempting to tackle this problem by using the infill part of an object to purge part of the filament, thereby reducing the costs and time of printing multi-material objects. Currently, the MMU 2.0 is in the last stages of beta testing, but it can already be pre-ordered.

Multi-Material 3D Printing Color 3D Printer

The Da Vinci Color.
The Da Vinci Color. Source: XYZ Printing

If your interest in multi-material is more focused in multi-color, then we suggest you have a look at one of our previous articles on the topic: Color 3D Printing: How To Get Colorful 3D Prints.

One of the most interesting proposals for the consumer market is that of XYZ Printing, with its Da Vinci Color, which combines standard FDM technology with inkjet printing. With the Da Vinci Color, specially formulated filament absorbs color pigments that are applied during the printing process. The range of colors that you can apply is comparable to that of a standard inkjet printer.

A similar concept is used by MCor with its ARKe. The ARKe is not fed by polymer filaments, but uses instead regular printing paper. Each layer in the ARKe is a sheet of paper, which is joined to adjacent sheets with a binding agent. As you can imagine, apart from a multi-colored object, the ARKe produces a considerable amount of paper for the recycling bin.

Multi-Material 3D Printing Industrial Systems

Multi-material 3D printer Objet500.
Multi-material 3D printer Objet500. Source: Stratasys

If your interest in multi-material is more towards industrial grade equipment, than both 3D Systems and Stratasys have you covered.

3D Systems’ ProJet MJP 5600 uses VisiJet Multi-material Composites, which allow you to blend together rigid and flexible materials. The printer precisely mixes polymers on-the-fly to achieve superior mechanical properties and custom performance characteristics. This means that you are not limited by the inherent mechanical properties of one polymer or the other, but you can instead mix a rigid and a flexible polymer to achieve a well-defined mechanical performance at every location of your print.

Stratasys, with its PolyJet technology, offers the possibility of combining a variety of materials with different mechanical properties and different colors through its Connex3 system, on both the Objet500 and Objet350 printers. With 1000 materials available, complex objects requiring different coloring schemes, thermal tolerances and mechanical performances can be generated.

License: The text of "Multi-Material 3D Printing – 2018 Overview" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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