Multicolor 3D Printing: Where Is It Heading Next?

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There’s been a lot of talk recently about multicolor and full color 3D printing. As 3D printing technology advances, the things that can be done with plastic materials are becoming more sophisticated. Gone are the days in which 3D prints necessarily have to be printed in one color and then painted. Although some people find painting prints enjoyable, it’s time-consuming and can be difficult, especially when prints have fine details. Multicolor 3D printing is now becoming more and more accessible and advanced. As of now, there are three different ways that FFF 3D printer users can print in multiple colors: manual filament change, CMYK color mixing, and colorizing.

[Image: Digital Harbor Foundation]

Manual filament changing is exactly what it sounds like – beginning a print in one color, then stopping the 3D printer at a certain point, changing the filament to another color, and continuing the print. This is still the most popular means of printing in multiple colors. It’s easy to do either between or within layers, and there are also automatic filament switching devices that can be added to any 3D printer to make it easier. Multi-extruder 3D printers are also becoming more common and affordable so that filament doesn’t have to be changed out manually; many slicers have the capability to change from one color to another during a print so that they process is fully automated. The only downside is that color mixing is not possible; you’re limited to whatever filament colors are available for your 3D printer. With some 3D printers, that’s not a lot – although if you have a 3D printer with an open filament system, your choices are greater, but still limited.

Then there’s CMYK color mixing. This is a bit more complex, and involves multiple strands of filament being fed into a single head, melted and blended together, then extruded as one strand. There are a few drawbacks to this method, however. If you use CMYK you’re not going to get a true white, so for a truly full spectrum of colors you’re going to need five heads for CMYKW. There are only a few 3D printers available with that many heads, and very few slicers have that kind of color-mixing ability out of the box. As this technology matures and slicers catch up, users will have the options to purchase fewer filaments because they will be able to mix the colors they need.

[Image: Hackaday]

[Image: Michael A. Parker]

The last kind of multicolor 3D printing technology, colorizing, has been around for a while but has been only available in printers in the $20- to $100K price range. Last year the first low-cost coloring printer hit the market. It prints with a special color-absorbing white PLA and sprays the material with liquid color droplets as it’s printing. It’s the only commercially available 3D printer capable of printing with this technology under $50K; no open source software has the capability to control this two-head type of printer.

It will be a while before colorizing technology matures enough to be under $500. In the meantime, color mixing is likely to become more widespread and drop in price as 3D print heads become more sophisticated. Technically, the process isn’t a huge leap from manual filament changing, and certain control boards can already handle multiple extruders. Slicers are already starting to build color ratio libraries, too. The only thing missing is filament optimized for color mixing.

M3D, maker of the Kickstarter-smashing Micro 3D printer and its updated version the Micro+, the M3D Pro and the Promega, may be known for its 3D printers, but it also has a line of quality filaments called 3D Ink as well. 3D Ink has been formulated with color mixing in mind, as M3D sees this process as the next logical step for adopting color in 3D printing.

Among the factors in favor of color mixing, as M3D sees it, are:

  • Not a huge technical leap from manual filament changing
  • Control boards like the Duet can already handle multiple extruders
  • Slicers are starting to build color ratio libraries

M3D’s filaments have controlled pigment sizes and additives that increase their ability to mix with other similar filaments. The proprietary mix and ratio of pigments results in a better color mixture, plus fewer clogs, more consistent sheer, and stronger 3D printed parts.

[Image: M3D]

3D Ink is M3D’s basic PLA; there’s also the strong Tough 3D Ink, the ABS alternative ABS-R, and Chameleon 3D Ink, which changes color when exposed to a certain temperature. 3D Ink comes in a wide variety of colors, just waiting to be blended into even more shades.

You can check out M3D’s line of 3D printer filaments here. And from what we’ve heard from their team, it sounds like a new multi-headed color mixing 3D printer from M3D is in the works, which they hope will really shake things up.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

 

 

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