A recent SIGGRAPH technical paper from researchers at MIT introduced MultiFab, a multi-material printer technology capable of print in ten different materials at once — unprecedented for affordable desktop 3D printer hardware.

From the paper’s abstract:

We have developed a multi-material 3D printing platform that is high-resolution, low-cost, and extensible. The key part of our platform is an integrated machine vision system. This system allows for self-calibration of printheads, 3D scanning, and a closed-feedback loop to enable print corrections. The integration of machine vision with 3D printing simplifies the overall platform design and enables new applications such as 3D printing over auxiliary parts. Furthermore, our platform dramatically expands the range of parts that can be 3D printed by simultaneously supporting up to 10 different materials that can interact optically and mechanically. The platform achieves a resolution of at least 40 micrometers by utilizing piezoelectric inkjet printheads adapted for 3D printing. The hardware is low cost (less than  $7,000) since it is built exclusively from off-the-shelf components. The architecture is extensible and modular — adding, removing, and exchanging printing modules can be done quickly. We provide a detailed analysis of the system’s performance. We also demonstrate a variety of fabricated multi-material objects….

Multi-material digital fabrication has been a frequently requested, only partially-implemented product feature within the desktop 3D printing ecosystem for extrusion machines.

Premium printer options such as multiple extruder heads offer multi-material capability to desktop machines, but as frequently as not, the manufacturers then declare the process of using these multiple heads within the same printed part as “experimental.” (Printrbot took this one step further, candidly cautioning customers in the product description for a dual extruder system: “If you are not a master 3D printer, do not order this product.”)

Sure, there is always the dream of executing your latest product design in one shot on a million dollar Objet Connex multi-jetting machine (and an unlimited consumables budget!) — the Lamborghini of the 3D printing industry. But this MIT research group’s use of off-the-shelf inkjet technology brings this level of granular material fabrication within reach of desktop machines.


MultiFab approaches the technical challenges of working with these discreet materials by drawing on advances in machine vision (including new resources for working with affordable 3D sensors) as much as additive manufacturing technology, brought together in an integrated platform capable of expanding to suit a range of materials and mechanical challenges.

The aim to bring together affordable machine vision packages, assembly automation know-how, automatic self-calibration of tools and platforms, and closed-loop feedback motor control is already impacting the desktop CNC and pick-and-place field, but it is long overdue in desktop 3D printing.

Take a look at progress in open source pick-and-place projects such as the FirePick Delta (and the underlying OpenPnP project) thanks to inventor/research-friendly software licenses for core technology. And for what is possible with closed-loop feedback and machine control, taking a look at the number of desktop CNC mills adopting TinyG.