One of the most exciting startups in 3D printing, in my mind, isn’t involved in metal binder jetting or low-cost metal 3D printing. It’s developed a precise and intelligent method for printing polymers, driven by machine vision. That startup is Inkbit, an MIT spin-out that just announced the commercial release of its first 3D printer, Vista. Now, the company has announced that it has been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract for $1.7M from the United States Air Force (USAF) that will see Inkbit build three systems for USAF bases in the U.S.
These three machines will be among the first commercial machines produced by the startup and the first is expected to be used by the Texas National Guard. Lt. Col. Alex Goldberg, Chief Innovation Officer of the Texas Air National Guard, said of the news, “The Texas National Guard is proud to be the leader in adopting additive manufacturing into the National Guard. We are excited to take the technology developed by agencies like DARPA to initiate expeditionary parts production efforts that will greatly reduce costs across the force.”
Inkbit’s proprietary Vision-Controlled Jetting (VCJ) is an inkjet polymer 3D printing technique that relies on machine vision and learning to enable closed loop, real-time feedback control. This means that the Inkbit 3D printers scan every layer, every voxel upon deposition and, if there is a discrepancy between the desired geometry and what has been printed, the machine automatically adjusts the next layer to compensate. All of the data collection then allows the machine to learn from its mistakes and execute the proper adjustments to account for any issues that might arise, such as shrinkage or warping.
“We want the machine to be on factory floors,” Inkbit co-founder and CEO Davide Marini told 3DPrint.com. “Of course, it can be used also for prototyping, but the beauty is that, on the same machine, users will be able to do both rapid prototyping if they want to and volume production. And it is natively a multi-material machine because we have chosen inkjet as our platform.”
The ability to scan every layer during the print job opens up some novel advantages. For instance, the machine vision makes it possible to incorporate non-3D printed parts into an otherwise printed object, with the system recognizing the foreign object and adjusting properly. Additionally, the system doesn’t require a method for scraping ink off of a rolling mechanism, which is the case for typical inkjet machines that rely on rollers to flatten each layer of photopolymer during printing. The vision system does away with this mechanism, opening up a wide variety of materials that would typically be impossible in traditional inkjet 3D printers.
Nearly all photopolymers used in 3D printing currently are acrylate-based or contain acrylate components, but the Vista can print with catalytically-cured substances, such as engineering-grade resins like epoxies. During a printing process with a conventional inkjet machine, the resin would adhere to the roller used to flatten each layer and slowly cure, ultimately jamming the machine. In a stereolithography or digital light processing machine, acrylates are used to initiate and cease the polymerization reaction, or else the entire vat would polymerize.
With the ability to 3D print with such polymers as epoxies, it’s possible to produce parts with greater durability and chemical resistance that cannot be achieved with acrylates. One application Marini gave was the production of fluidic manifolds that can be flushed with strong chemicals, like aggressive acids or bases. Vista can also print with materials that don’t degrade when exposed to UV light, a notorious problem with parts 3D printed with photopolymers more generally.
Vista is an evolution of a system called Multi-Fab, developed in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) of Wojciech Matusik by a group of researchers, including Javier Ramos. What made the machine unique was its use of machine vision to scan every layer as it was printed, not only making it possible to achieve new levels of accuracy and precision, but also the embedding of non-printed components into 3D printed parts.
When Inkbit was spun out in 2017, Matusik became Chief Technology officer and Ramos Director of Hardware. Marini had just come off of a successful stint as the head of another MIT startup called Firefly BioWorks, which he sold to Abcam. And the Multi-Fab, well that became the first prototype for Inkbit. The company rebuilt the system as version zero, going through several iterations to achieve the Vista machine.
Among the changes to the printer included a modification in its architecture, which previously moved print heads across a stationary bed, similar to traditional inkjet 3D printers. Because the company aimed to build an industrial-grade machine featuring a wide variety of materials, the team knew that the print hardware would be too heavy around the print bed. In turn, Inkbit decided to keep the print block stationary and move the print bed back and forth below. Additionally, a veteran from Stratasys—who went on to participate with DSM in a $12 million investment round for the startup—noted that the frame would need to be much stiffer or else the system would have precision issues.
The next major design change was an improved machine vision system based on optical coherence tomography, completed with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This technology relies on interferometry to generate images with micrometer resolution from optical scattering media. As sophisticated as this system was, however, Marini said that it would have made Vista too expensive.
“The decision was made to redesign that purely because of cost. We didn’t want to put into the market a machine that was too expensive. For Vista, we have developed a more traditional vision system that is based on triangulation. It’s still completely proprietary to us,” Marini said.
The new SBIR contract also funds the development of the technology and software meant to improve production output of VCJ, building on the DARPA-funded research.
About this new contract with USAF, Marini said in a press release, “We are thrilled to be awarded this substantial contract from the United States Air Force. We are at an inflection point in our business where the technology is undoubtedly making a difference in how additive manufacturing is used to create materials that are appropriate for end-use, pass quality assurance standards, and reduce general production costs from legacy systems. We are looking forward to working with the USAF and are excited to make a difference with additive manufacturing.”
The DARPA-driven vision system will likely make it onto future systems for customers that require that level of precision. Marini was blown away by the support he’s received from DARPA. The defense organization holds Inkbit accountable to deliver on milestones related to the vision system. At the same time, they introduced the startup to the Air Force, providing Inkbit with one of its first customers.
“Working with DARPA has been the best thing that could possibly happened to us. We have been amazed by their speed and open-mindedness, and are super, super, super happy to have been funded by them,” Marini said. “As an example, I received a call from our program manager, who encouraged us to think creatively about how we could assist local hospitals with their response to the pandemic. Out of this effort came our collaboration with Boston Medical Center, with whom we are working today on exciting projects.”
An added benefit of multi-material 3D printing with inkjet is the ability to 3D print a meltable support resin. Inkbit has developed a photopolymer that melts via hot water bath or in an oven in just five minutes. Marini mentioned that the company is currently developing add-on modules to fully automate that process. Though he wasn’t able to be specific about what the product roadmap will look like, he did say, “We will be incorporating intelligence throughout the entire process.”
From the beginning, Inkbit has had a goal of creating a flexible, industrial 3D printing technology. Looking at the movement of the print bed beneath the print head, one notices a resemblance to the PrintValley system developed by Dutch research organization TNO. Marini said that the startup considered such a “racetrack” setup, in which the build plate moves in an oval shape beneath the print head, allowing for an assembly line workflow. Because Inkbit’s technology opens up the possibility of integrating non-printed parts into items as they’re fabricated, it’s possible to imagine how additional modules might be used to add these elements into items built in an assembly line fashion.
“In the future, may want to add modules to our machine to enable users to do that,” Marini said. “We’re really at the very early stages of designing this, but we are oriented toward the factory of the future and we believe that the factory of the future will also include obviously processes that are not so dependent on 3D printing. So, it’s important for our solutions to be easily integrated in other existing workflows.”
The company is still working out its business model, but Marini aims to be future focused in that area as well. On the one hand, Marini noticed that there are businesses like Protolabs where a customer uploads a file for production. In contrast, there are contract manufacturers like Jabil that work hand-in-hand with large companies as they develop parts and applications from the ground up. Marini envisions some combination of the two.
“What I imagine could happen is almost something like a hybrid model between a Protolabs and Jabil where—basically the digital factory I have in mind is not so much for anybody to upload a CAD file, but it’s more for a dedicated on-demand production for corporations that need to maybe revamp their product lines or testing products in the market fast. It’s not even hardware-as-a-service. It’s something that does not exist today.”
Since Inkbit CTO Wojciech Matusik is an expert in computer science and artificial intelligence, the company may explore what Marini referred to as “an operating system for manufacturing” that would streamline the process of conceiving of an idea and seeing it manufactured. This would include different materials from different locations all the way through to who would manufacture it.
From our conversation, it was clear that we had only scratched the surface of what was possible with Inkbit’s technology and its vision for manufacturing. Vista was obviously only the beginning of a complete reimagining of how we produce goods altogether.
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