After spinning out of MIT and procuring $12 million in investment from the likes of Stratasys, DSM, 3M and Ocado, Inkbit is now on the road to shipping its first Vista multi-material 3D printing systems in 2022.
It expects its 3D printing technology, powered by Vision-Controlled Jetting, to be of interest to the medical market, robotics industry and industrial automation sector where it could be deployed to produce high precision, multi-material, industrial-grade parts. Inkbit is currently accepting orders of its flagship machine launched in February and will initially take control of machine operation to ensure the tech works reliably before handing over to customers at the turn of the year.
The company has its origins inside MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory that was led by Inkbit co-founder and CTO Wojciech Matusik. Through the MIT network, Matsuik and his research team were connected with Davide Marini [DM], a mechanical engineer originally from Italy who had previously worked in the life sciences space. Now leading his second start-up, Marini took some time out to talk to TCT about Inkbit’s 3D printing technology, the importance of the built-in scanning system, and what the company’s mission is.
Hello Davide, we know Inkbit started out in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, but can you fill in the gaps leading up to the recent launch of the Vista machine?
DM: Wojciech is a pioneer in the field of computational manufacturing, so he’s applying all the latest techniques from computer science to the field of manufacturing. At the time, Wojciech, along with Javier Ramos, one of his graduate students, had this idea of endowing a printer with a set of eyes. They developed a vision system that they integrated inside the machine to make it much more precise, much more accurate and being able to print with a larger set of materials. The first experiments were done and the value of this method became obvious immediately.
After a few iterations, they decided that the power of combining machine vision with inkjet was obvious and they wanted to commercialise it. They reached out to the MIT network to see if someone experienced in taking technologies out of universities into the marketplace was available and I was introduced to them.
Over the last three years, we have been focusing on transforming the initial technology into a real product that we could provide to the world. Now, we’re at that famous critical inflection point where it’s no longer about technology development, it’s about commercialisation.
Can you explain some of the key characteristics of Inkbit’s inkjet 3D printing technology?
DM: We chose inkjet because of its proven nature in industrial applications in 2D and also because it offers naturally natively multi-material capabilities. When you add those two characteristics to the layer of machine vision and artificial intelligence that we have added, you obtain an extremely powerful technology.
The key working principle is the idea of scanning every single layer in real time. We can use this 3D scan data to ensure that the part is produced exactly to the specified geometry as possible, so if any deviations are detected, our algorithms automatically correct the print in real time. No voxel goes undetected. And most importantly, the process is contactless which means that the part never comes in contact with any mechanical rollers or spreaders. This has a number of benefits. Of course, the first one is higher accuracy and precision. Also, less waste is produced, unlike what happens with a roller and it’s faster, clearly.
And, the most important advantage, which is an advantage that we actually did not expect, is the idea that we can break out of the confines of acrylate chemistry. If you look at all the commercial 3D printers that use photopolymers are based on acrylate chemistry. That has certain limitations on the durability of the parts that you can make. We are not confined to the chemistry, we can open up to all sorts of chemistries. And probably the most obvious example is our series of epoxy materials; we print with pure 100% epoxy resins, and we can achieve very high level of chemical resistance, UV resistance. And it’s all because of the vision system.
What opportunities has Inkbit been opened to through the compatibility with these epoxy resins?
DM: We have a collaboration with a large corporation, the details of which I am not at liberty to say unfortunately, but what I can say at a high level is that we can make fluidic manifolds which are complex that comprise lots of internal integrated channels that have to route fluids that are harsh and may be corrosive. The polymer chemistry has to be resistant to chemical attack and, on top of that, the manifold may wish to be connected to other parts of the machine. Because we are a multi material technology, we can integrate soft gaskets into the part, for example. Today, this is not possible on other machines. In one go, we can make a complex fluidic manifold with highly chemical resistant material for all sorts of applications when you need to route fluids in a complex manner in say a pneumatic circuit. We can make parts that are extremely soft and stretchable, that are very much silicon-like and we can combine two features that are, I would say, impossible to obtain on other architectures, to have a very soft and stretchable material, and at the same time have very fine features with wall thicknesses down to 200 or 300 microns.
We have started to explore this in the area of soft robotics. For example, if you want to make end effectors for robots, for manipulators, that are pneumatically actuated, this becomes extremely valuable and we’re collaborating with a group at ETH Zurich on this.
Another feature of Inkbit’s 3D printing technology is the capacity to print up to eight materials. Can you explain the significance of this and when this capability may be available to customers?
DM: We can produce parts that are both multi-material and production-grade. To the best of my knowledge, I think we’re the only company that can do that with a possible exception of Evolve.
Essentially, the engine platform is very scalable. We could expand beyond eight materials if we wanted to. But at the moment, we just advertise the capabilities of expansion, we haven’t yet explored an application with eight different materials. What I would imagine will happen in the future is that designers and manufacturers will, little by little, move away from assembling different subcomponents of products and print everything in one go. So, the more and more sophisticated products are, the more different sub-assemblies will be required, more materials will be required. And it will be possible to have as many materials as you want in the same part. So as of today, the typical use is maybe three materials. You may have in the same part, for example, what we’re working on now is tough epoxy, chemical resistance epoxy, high temperature epoxy, softer epoxy in the same part. At the moment, we have not explored an application with eight, but I’m sure this will come.
In introducing Vision-Controlled Jetting, Inkbit is promising high speed and high accuracy. How has the company ensured it can deliver both without compromising the quality of parts?
DM: This is the number one challenge that we set out to solve. It became possible to solve this challenge only recently because of the advances in electronics, better cameras, better sensors. The key to that is being able to scan extremely fast. In our machine, no time is wasted in scanning, you could remove the scanner and the speed will be the same because this scanner is extremely fast, so we detect every single voxel in the machine. And we ensure that there are no errors at the voxel level. To solve the challenge took an enormous amount of work, we had to basically design our own proprietary scanner. And this was funded significantly by DARPA and we are using the latest and greatest computer science algorithms for image processing that are available and we are fortunate to be collaborating with the MIT computer science and artificial intelligence lab. Five years ago, what we do would not have been possible.
On the development of materials, what is the company’s strategy?
DM: We are very open to collaboration with materials companies. We want to adopt an open model. Developing materials for inkjet can take time, it’s not easy because there is a requirement about the viscosity of the ink that can be jetted. So, we have a model of open collaboration and we’ll probably have a certification programme such that if you a materials company and you want to develop on the platform, you have to work with us so that we make sure that the material actually works and it doesn’t break the machine. But, at the moment, we develop all our materials in-house and we not only formulate our materials, we also have proprietary chemistry on some of the ones that we developed in-house.
Inkbit is targeting the medical, robotics and industrial automation markets, but what is the company’s overall mission?
DM: What is happening in the manufacturing space is ven more exciting that the computer revolution. It is unrolling now in front of our eyes, it’s a tremendously exciting time. I think the way products are designed, manufactured and sold around the world will completely change and it will resemble more and more software development, so it will be much simpler to go from an idea in the mind of a product designer all the way to having a product in the market. It will be much, much faster.
That’s what we want to enable. We want to enable this rapid iteration and we want to make a platform that goes seamlessly from rapid prototyping, functional prototyping to manufacturing on the same machine. We want to drastically accelerate the process of product development.
What we’re developing is a very exciting platform that combines multi-material with production. If you were to draw a two by two matrix where on one axis you have single material and multi-material, and one the other axis you have prototyping versus production, that matrix is basically full of companies except for one box which is multi-material for production. And as of today [Friday March 5th, 2021], I believe together with Evolve, we are the only two companies operating in that box.
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