Custom Furniture Built in Minutes: MIT Self-Assembly Lab Teams Up With Furniture Manufacturer to Develop New 3D Printing Process

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From knit chairs, concrete furniture, and beer bottle furniture joints to miniature furniture, foldable furniture, and custom furniture manufactured for customers in a pop-up shop, 3D printing has sure made an impact on the furnishings we choose to put in our homes. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, headquartered in Michigan, have been working hard to make large-scale, 3D printed office furniture manufacturing a reality, and have developed an entirely new method of 3D printing in the process.

Rapid Liquid Printing

The researchers call their new experimental method Rapid Liquid Printing, or RLP. When I first read the name of this new method, I immediately thought of the Gel Dispensed Printing method developed by MASSIVit 3D in 2015, but RLP is different in that it doesn’t use a typical layer-by-layer approach: instead, this method can physically draw in 3D space, within a large tank of gel. Large, customized objects can be printed in just minutes, with liquid materials you might often see used in other industrial processes, such as foam, rubber, or plastic.

Here’s how it works: a two-part liquid polyurethane is extruded into the gel from a nozzle attached to a CNC machine, and the liquids mix together, quickly creating a solid object. The object, in this case a piece of furniture, is removed from the gel, but instead of being put through a curing process, is simply washed off with water.

According to the team at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, “Compared with other techniques we believe this is the first development to combine industrial materials with extremely fast print speeds in a precisely controlled process to yield large-scale products.”

Co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab Skylar Tibbits, who memorably took the reins from Hod Lipson when he stepped down from the peer-reviewed 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing Journal a couple years ago, said that the net result of the new RLP method is a material that’s able to be produced in just minutes, far faster than traditional 3D printing methods work (wasn’t it just yesterday that this was the argument for using 3D printing technology versus conventional methods of manufacturing?).

Tibbits explained, “Our process does not print with layers, does not need support materials, can be printed in seconds to minutes and uses everyday industrial liquid materials.”

Self-Assembly Lab

The Self-Assembly Lab at MIT is no stranger to 3D printing, from working with rock 3D printing to the notion that a 4D smartphone may one day be able to build itself. The lab works to make its self-assembling future a reality by collaborating with academic, nonprofit, government, and commercial partners, like Steelcase, which received its first patent all the way back in 1914 for a manufacturing process it developed in order to build a strong, inexpensive, durable wastebasket, which was also fireproof. So obviously, the company is not adverse to utilizing breakthrough manufacturing technologies to make furniture.

Rob Poel, director of new business innovation at Steelcase, said, “We’re looking at interesting opportunities for our company. There’s been a rising demand in the workplace for personalization and customization. Companies are looking for ways to attract employees – this is one of them.”

Tibbits believes that once the new RLP process has further matured, nothing else currently available on the market will be able to match its speed, large-scale manufacturing abilities, and multi-material use. He believes that traditional 3D printing has three main issues, one of which is its inability to make large objects, and while I beg to differ on this count, he makes a good point in that RLP can create “opportunities for new kinds of 3D printing to emerge, because it’s possible to create different thicknesses of a single object.”

Yuka Hiyoshi, a senior industrial designer at Steelcase, said, “As a designer, what’s most fascinating and unique about Rapid Liquid Printing is the line quality of the print. It’s soft, almost organic. When you’re printing freely within a gel suspension, you can create these dynamic shapes without the traditional 3D printing support material and structure. There is this natural fluidity to the print that would be lost using other techniques.”

Tibbits notes that there is still a lot of work to be done before the technology is readily available; so far, the team has only created the process and exhibited some furniture designs, with product designer Christophe Guberan, at Milan’s Furniture Fair.

“There’s a long way to go yet before it meets testing standards,” Poel concurred. “We also have to look at the viability of the process and the costs associated with it. But it’s exciting and promising.”

Discuss in the Rapid Liquid Printing forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Forbes / Images: Steelcase/MIT]

 

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