Until this year, 3D Printers were only able to generate prints from a single material, in a single color at a time. This was mostly due to the .stl CAD file formats that intruct the printers. This fundamental limitation of the technology is now changing as multi-material printers are coming on the market. And expanding capabilities even further, Stratasys has just introduced a multi-material printer that prints in full color.
The Objet500 Connex3 combines strong, rigid Digital ABS, a type of photopolymer, with flexible rubber-like materials simultaneously. According to the Stratasys website, a designer can combine as many as 46 different colors into one prototype, to create more realistic designs. In an interview with the BBC, Stratasys marketing manager Bruce Bradshaw says, “This will help industrial designers reduce the time it takes to bring prototypes to market by 50%.”
At the recent CES Show, Stratasys competitor 3D Systems introduced their own multi-material production 3D Printer, the ProJet 5500X. This machine produces prints in black, white or grey, without the full color options Stratasys is offering. For industrial designers, color is often not essential to test form and function. But in showing prototypes to a customer, color brings a part to life.
Of course, this is not the same as printing any diverse types of materials on one machine. When choosing which 3D Printer is right for your job, which material you need to print is a primary consideration. Metal machines, for example, only print metal and no other materials.
Advancements in technology also come at a price. The new Stratasys printer has a price tag of $330,000 US, certainly not a machine that will be the home Star Trek Replicator anytime soon! That said, these new machines are pushing 3D Printing to a stronger competitive position versus traditional manufacturing processes. It is the industrial market that is driving 3D Printing revenue and as production machines are improved, the technological advances will inevitably trickle down to the consumer market.