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Missouri develops 3D printing method for multi-materials manufacturing

25 Jun 2024

Freeform Multi-material Assembly Process combines 3D printing with laser process, enabling multi-functional devices.

University of Missouri researchers have developed a new laser-based method to create complex devices with multiple materials — including plastics, metals and semiconductors – all with a single machine.

The research, described in Nature Communications, outlines a novel 3D printing and laser process to manufacture multi-material, multi-layered sensors, circuit boards and even textiles with electronic components. It has been named the Freeform Multi-material Assembly Process.

The Missouri announcement states: “By printing sensors embedded within a structure, the machine can make devices that can sense environmental conditions, including temperature and pressure. For other researchers, that could mean having a natural-looking object such as a rock or seashell that could measure the movement of ocean water. Consumer applications could include wearable devices that monitor blood pressure and other vital signs.”

“This is the first time this type of process has been used, and it’s unlocking new possibilities,” said Bujingda Zheng, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Missouri and the lead author of the study. “I’m excited about the design. I’ve always wanted to do something that no one has ever done before, and I’m getting to do that here.”

One of the main benefits of Freeform Multi-material Assembly is that innovators can focus on designing new products without worrying about how to prototype them.

“This opens the possibility for entirely new markets,” said Jian “Javen” Lin, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Missouri. “It will have broad impacts on wearable sensors, customizable robots, medical devices and more.”

“Everything in nature consists of structural and functional materials,” Zheng said. “For example, electrical eels have bones and muscles that enable them to move. They also have specialized cells that can discharge up to 500 volts to deter predators.”

Special techniques

The team’s method uses special techniques to solve these problems. Team members built a machine that has three different nozzles: one adds ink-like material, another uses a laser to carve shapes and materials, and the third adds additional functional materials to enhance the product’s capabilities.

It starts by making a basic structure with regular 3D printing filament, such as polycarbonate, a type of transparent thermoplastic. Then, it switches to laser to convert some parts into a special material called laser-induced graphene, putting it exactly where it is needed. Finally, more materials are added to enhance the functional abilities of the final product.

This work is being funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation Advanced Manufacturing program, and the NSF I-Corps program is providing funds to explore commercialization.

“The I-Corps program is helping us identify market interests and needs,” Lin said. “Currently, we believe it would be of interest to other researchers, but we believe it will ultimately benefit businesses. It will shorten fabrication time for device prototyping by allowing companies to make prototypes in house. This technology, available only at Missouri, shows great promise for transforming the way products are fabricated and manufactured.”

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