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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Rapid Prototyping Journal, Volume 20, Issue 2
As I write this editorial, it has only been a couple of weeks since Stratasys announced their colour version of the Connex printer stating that it was "the first and only 3D printer to combine colours with multi-material 3D printing". Of course, colour 3D printing has been with us for many years, initially from Z-Corp (now part of 3D systems) and more recently from Mcor Technologies. One problem with both of these technologies is that they use underlying materials that are not commonly used in manufacturing, i.e. ceramic powder and paper sheets. The resultant models do not have the mechanical properties associated with production materials such as injection moulded plastics. Another issue is that the colour effect achieved is only "skin-deep" and some say that the tones have not been as rich as those obtained through painting of models. Consequently, the use of multi-coloured models from these machines has been limited mainly to industrial design mock-ups, 3D geographical maps and finite element stress contour models. They are not intended for use as fully-functional prototypes and certainly not for production parts.
The unique feature of the Connex machine is that it will be able to combine colour printing with a range of so-called "digital materials", which vary in mechanical properties from flexible rubber-like materials to rigid materials with mechanical properties similar to ABS plastic. As a result, they promise to deliver models that can be used as fully-functional prototypes and, indeed, some Stratasys customers are already using them as such. On their "online newsroom", they quote a customer as saying that they have used both the multi-material and colour capability of the machine to create a functional model of a bicycle chain guard, with the primary material being "digital ABS". Other images show an American Football helmet, multi-coloured spectacles and a multi-coloured pair of shoes. It will be very interesting to see just how functional these models are and how well they will stand up to the wear and tear of user testing. They could add a whole new level of realism to the form and fit testing of 3D printed models.
In fact, as an academic teaching in a Design School that uses a Connex 500 printer, I have seen its potential for delivering coloured parts for several years. I have said as much to our suppliers and they have remained fairly tight-lipped when replying; perhaps now I can see why. However, it seems that our machine cannot be retrofitted for colour printing, a real pity, but probably not a surprise. As a researcher into the possibilities that come with direct-part production using additive manufacturing, my mind is already racing ahead to the potential of creating fully-functional end-use parts with this technology. "If it is possible to create multi-coloured parts with mechanical properties similar to injection moulded ABS, then why cant I use them as production parts?" This is the question that I want to see answered. Colour 3D printing could revolutionise products in a wide range of markets where customers will pay extra for personalised designs. As well as customised shapes and sizes, fully customised colour schemes could be offered: what a playground for product designers!