New research aims to unlock advanced forms of 3D printing

16 Nov 2023

Prof Andreas Heise. Image: RCSI

An RCSI-led project is working on 3D-printed healthcare devices, while an MIT project is using computer vision to let 3D printing systems work with a wider range of materials.

Two new research projects are diving into the power of 3D printing technology and using new materials for various applications.

One of these projects aims to develop new materials through bioprinting, a type of 3D printing that can create structures imitating natural tissues. The goal of this research is to create safe and affordable medical devices.

This project – called Polina – is being led by the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and has received €2.9m from the European Innovation Council’s Pathfinder programme.

The project aims to combine light-sensitive natural materials with the latest 3D printing techniques to develop implantable devices that are compatible with human cells. Polina also aims to develop novel research and development tools.

This research project will last for four years and is expected to commence in January 2024. Prof Andreas Heise of the RCSI said the the current materials and methods used to make 3D—printed biostructures are “limited in the precision they allow”.

“Polina will use a new material known as light-sensitive polyamino acid (PAA) and combine those with precision 3D-patterning techniques known from the microelectronic industry to create unprecedented patterning precision,” Heise said.

“In the longer-term, it might also open opportunities in next-generation sustainable electronics by replacing currently used petrochemical building blocks.”

The project is being assisted by industry partner 4Dcell and includes five academic groups and two subject matter experts from across Ireland, France, Switzerland, Spain and Germany.

A 3D printer that can watch itself

Meanwhile, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim to have developed a new type of 3D inkjet printing system that utilises computer vision and works with a wider range of materials.

3D inkjet printing is a process that involves depositing small amounts of liquid materials to help develop 3D objects. The MIT team said this method lets engineers make hybrid structures that have soft and rigid components, such as robotic grippers used by human workers.

The process usually involves thousands of nozzles to deposit tiny droplets of resin, which are then smoothed out and cured with UV light. But the researchers claim this smoothing process can squish resins that cure slowly, which limits the types of material that can be used.

To solve this issue, the researchers created a 3D printer that uses computer vision to automatically scan the printing surface. The team claims this printer can then adjust the amount of resin each nozzle deposits in real time, to ensure no areas have too much or too little material.

“Our key insight here was to develop a machine vision system and completely active feedback loop,” said one of the study authors, MIT’s Prof Wojciech Matusik.

“This is almost like endowing a printer with a set of eyes and a brain, where the eyes observe what is being printed and then the brain of the machine directs it as to what should be printed next.”

The study claims this method removes the need for mechanical parts to smooth the resin, which means it can be used to work on a variety of materials that take longer to cure. These materials could offer improved performance over the common acrylates used in 3D inkjet printing systems.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic