Full color 3D printing is the holy grail of 3D printing. To be able to 3D print an object in any color whatsoever with clear definition and no bleed would really make prototyping with 3D printing more valuable. If prototypes coming off the printer would look almost exactly like the final object, then the technology would become much more widespread. If 3D printing’s costs came down, moreover, then people would be able to produce consumer friendly manufactured objects with full color 3D printing as well. Currently we are not yet at the level where true full color 3D printing is a reality. There are, however, a number of promising developments in that area. Below we’ll look at some of the developments happening towards color 3D printing.
Stratasys Objet Polyjet
Stratasys Objet PolyJet technology uses an inkjet head to deposit material and then a UV light to cure this material. Traditionally PolyJet made beautiful, well detailed objects but these had low heat deflection temperatures and were fragile. The resins used for this process have improved, however, improving the strength and heat resistance of PolyJet 3D printed objects.
PolyJet is relatively easy to print in a semi office environment. The resins are, however, very expensive (as are 3D Systems’ color materials below) and this is retarding the use of PolyJet in broader manufacturing applications. Other issues include the fact that support material removal requires a washing station and with some geometries can be problematic. While Stratasys is unveiling newer color capabilities all the time, the company has not really showcased full color completely. With its new J750 machine the company has really unveiled a package that brings 3D printing very close to true full color.
Further advantages of the technology are that it is possible to make gradient materials with PolyJet. With gradient materials you can make a thing flexible in one area and rigid in another for example. This would enable new types of products to emerge. Things such as 3D printing a housing, the buttons and the fasteners in one go, each with different qualities, would really change how products are designed and made. One could envision that one printer in one production step could make much of one product with varying mechanical properties.
A future development to watch with this material would be increased functionality of the material. Perhaps in a while the company will look at conductive inks. Combining the strong dimensionally accurate FDM prints of Stratasys machines with PolyJet would be a possible way for Stratasys to implement cost effective full color objects that could be functional.
3D Systems CJP
All the cool kids call 3D Systems’ Color Jet Printing Zcorp after the company 3D Systems bought to obtain the technology. CJP uses a build material which is a powder that is spread out. An inkjet head then deposits binder which hardens the model where it needs to be built while the loose powder acts as a support material. A finished part has to then be brushed clean and is usually infiltrated with a wax or other material to strengthen it.
CJP makes delicate models that can be very colorful, especially with the newer VisiJet materials that the company has released. Their fragility does mean that they can’t now be used as functional end use products. The process also does have some occasional issues with getting the color profiles right.
Generally CJP could also use inkjets to look at 3D printing circuits and conductive parts. At the moment the technology has some post finishing equipment that either coats it in wax or another substance through infiltration. On the one hand this adds a new process step but this is also an opportunity. CJP could be further enhanced by this infiltration technology and this could give the parts unique qualities.
HP Multi Jet FusionHP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology is an inkjet assisted sintering 3D printing process. Jet Fusion works by spreading a powder out on a print bed, the chamber is heated, a fusing agent and a detailing agent are applied by inkjet heads. A heating lamp passes over the print bed at the same time and this (combined with the fusing and detailing agents) causes the part to sinter and fuse while the unsintered powder remains behind to support the part. Parts then have to be post processed at a separate station and air blasted to clean off excess powder.
HP’s technology is very exciting and has been showcasing color capability. The company prints in tough materials such as polyamide and the specs on part characteristics are very exciting. Because there is a fusing agent which determines which powder will become part of the build and a detail material that can determine surface quality there could be a lot of interesting developments with these materials. HP’s deep experience in inkjet printing will also give them a lot of resources to develop the technology. Multi Jet Fusion is however a very new technology and color capabilities have not been released yet on the market. Many more machines will have to reach customers and garner good experiences before the technology is to see widespread adoption.
This Irish firm Mcor has developed its own color 3D printing technology. With Mcor a piece of paper is laid down and cut by an automated knife. A binder is applied and a new piece of paper is applied. An inkjet head can then print color around the edges of parts to add full color. Support has to be manually removed.
Mcor’s process is the safest 3D printing process that there is. For the environment and people around the printer, it is by far the safest technology to run. There are also no fumes or powder explosion risks. Mcor is also the cheapest 3D printing technology by far. Mcor uses regular paper and this means that the cost of the parts is very low indeed. The process is, however, relatively slow so hasn’t been considered for industrial use. Mcor’s parts are actually quite tough, much tougher and stronger than one would imagine. For use in schools, universities and companies the Mcor technology is a very interesting one indeed.
XYZprinting has created a lineup of low cost desktop 3D printers and now has introduced a hybrid full color 3D printing process. Its da Vinci Color FDM 3D printer prints using filament and then inkjets color on top of the printed part. By combining the low cost dimensional accuracy but sloppy finish of FDM with inkjet, the $3000 desktop machine can make color parts on the desktop. The company has to be lauded for fooling everyone into thinking that they were working on better $249 3D printers while they developed this color technology. Doing it at a very low price point is also very significant.
We’ve yet to see in-depth long-term reviews of XYZ’s color 3D printer and see how well it works. If the da Vinci Color works well and the parts are inexpensive then this could be a big development for desktop 3D printing.
If XYZprinting can further enhance its parts through using the inkjet head to apply all sorts of coatings to a part then they could also increase the functionality of parts.
FDM Color Mixing
First shown by RichRap (if I’m not mistaken), color blending is an FDM 3D printing process where filament is blended to give color gradients to parts. True color is not possible with this method but companies such as ORD Solutions and ZMorph have shown very tough colorful parts using color mixing or color blending for FDM.
If these types of nozzles could be brought to many more existing systems then 3D printing colorful parts could be brought to the entire installed base of desktop 3D printers.
We’re still not entirely there yet. True, repeatable, reliable full color 3D printed parts are very close to becoming a reality, though. Several different companies with different technologies seem very close. We also know of several companies working toward new color capabilities, some which should hit the market in the relatively near future. What do you think, will this be a significant development in 3D printing or are other things more important?
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