Objects made with 3-D printing can be lighter, stronger, and more complex than those produced through traditional manufacturing methods. But several technical challenges must be overcome before 3-D printing transforms the production of most devices.
Commercially available printers generally offer only high speed, high precision, or high-quality materials. Rarely do they offer all three, limiting their usefulness as a manufacturing tool. Today, 3-D printing is used mainly for prototyping and low-volume production of specialized parts.
Now Inkbit, a startup out of MIT, is working to bring all of the benefits of 3-D printing to a slew of products that have never been printed before — and it's aiming to do so at volumes that would radically disrupt production processes in a variety of industries.
The company is accomplishing this by pairing its multimaterial inkjet 3-D printer with machine-vision and machine-learning systems. The vision system comprehensively scans each layer of the object as it's being printed to correct errors in real-time, while the machine-learning system uses that information to predict the warping behavior of materials and make more accurate final products.
"The company was born out of the idea of endowing a 3-D printer with eyes and brains," says Inkbit co-founder and CEO Davide Marini PhD '03.
That idea unlocks a range of applications for Inkbit's machine. The company says it can print more flexible materials much more accurately than other printers. If an object, including a computer chip or other electronic component, is placed on the print area, the machine can precisely print materials around it. And when an object is complete, the machine keeps a digital replica that can be used for quality assurance.
Inkbit is still an early-stage company. It currently has one operational production-grade printer. But it will begin selling printed products later this year, starting with a pilot with Johnson and Johnson, before selling its printers next year. If Inkbit can leverage current interest from companies that sell medical devices, consumer products, and automotive components, its machines will be playing a leading production role in a host of multi-billion-dollar markets in the next few years, from dental aligners to industrial tooling and sleep apnea masks.
"Everyone knows the advantages of 3-D printing are enormous," Marini says. "But most people are experiencing problems adopting it. The technology just isn't there yet. Our machine is the first one that can learn the properties of a material and predict its behavior. I believe it will be transformative, because it will enable anyone to go from an idea to a usable product extremely quickly. It opens up business opportunities for everyone."