3D printing has revolutionized the process of fabricating prototype parts. In the past, you would generally need to have a part machined or fabricated by hand and that could take days of labor. Now you can 3D-print complex parts in just hours. But if you’ve never tried 3D printing yourself, then you might not know about the practical realities of the technology — particularly that many parts will require supports. Not only do those supports increase the print time and require later removal, they increase the amount of plastic waste. To address those issues, researchers from the University of Southern California Viterbi have developed a dynamic 3D printing platform that dramatically reduces the need for supports.
3D-printed parts require support structures when there is overhanging geometry. For example, if you were printing a part shaped like a T, then you would need supports underneath the two horizontal portions at the top. 3D printers form parts in layers, so without supports in those areas there would be nothing to extrude the new material onto. Those supports are usually truss-like structures that are made from the same material as the rest of the part. The contact points between the supports and the part are generally small, so the supports can snap off. In reality, removing supports can actually take quite a lot of time and effort. In many cases, those supports also require a lot of material that will just get thrown away — material that can be very expensive.
This special 3D printer build platform requires far less support material, because it can adjust itself as necessary. The bed is divided into many small square sections, each of which is independently actuated with magnetic pins. Those small sections rise with the hot end on the Z axis until they reach the required height to support the part’s geometry. Some 3D-printed supports are still required to conform to the part’s unique shape, but this easily eliminates several centimeters of support structures. Essentially, the sections are acting as automatic reusable supports. For your typical, everyday FFF (Fused-Filament Fabrication) 3D printing jobs, this probably isn’t worth the additional cost for the build platform, because ABS and PLA are dirt cheap. But for more exotic materials, like those used for bioprinting that cost a lot of money, this bed could end up saving scientists a significant amount of money.