Making 3D printing as simple as printing on paper

MIT spinout New Valence Robotics (NVBOTS) has created what it claims is the only fully automated commercial 3D printer that is equipped with cloud-based queuing and automatic part removal, making print jobs quicker and easier for multiple users, and reducing the cost per part.

To use the printer, called NVPro, users can submit a project from any device, which queues up in the NVCloud software. When a part gets printed, a retractable blade cuts the piece out, moves it into a bin, and the next project begins automatically. Projects can be monitored remotely via webcam.

Launched in April 2016, the printer is now used at more than 100 businesses and schools, primarily as an education tool. Over the past year, there have been more than 84,000 prints, saving more than 165,000 labour hours, according to NVBOTS.

NVLabs, the startup’s research arm, is now bolstering security, analysing big data, working with materials, and improving human-robotic interfaces for 3D printing. In January, NVLabs spun out Digital Alloys, a startup developing high-speed, multimetal manufacturing systems that run at lower costs than traditional systems.

The company envisions a world in which 3D printing is as easy and commonplace as printing on paper — and perhaps more globally accessible. Chair and co-founder Alfonso Perez said: “Our mission is to allow printing with any material, at any time, and from anywhere in the world. This means.”

The machines require minimal training and oversight, which is a benefit for schools. Perez said: “Teachers like to teach. Teachers don’t like to maintain a machine, and schools can’t afford to pay for someone to run a machine. On a basic level, we wanted to create a 3D printer that’s so easy a 6-year-old could use it, but a PhD could use it as well.”

Over the past year, the startup has also sold to companies in automotive, construction, medical devices, consumer goods, aerospace, and architecture fields. Usually it takes days or weeks to 3D print a building model or a medical device part. With NVBOTS, clients can upload a design on the cloud and pick up the product themselves within a day, with no need of a trained expert. This also gives more workers the ability to find solutions for engineering and other company issues.

Moving forward, NVLabs and Digital Alloys will bring even more innovations to 3D printing, Perez says.

Digital Alloys is developing a new print head that, according to the startup, allows for multimetal prints at higher speeds than traditional methods, for aerospace, defence, and automotive applications.

Digital Alloys said its process uses thicker wire as the material, which builds up quicker. The industry leader for metal printing produces 2kg per day, while Digital Alloys produces 20kg.

NVLabs is gathering data on NVBOTS printers to improve performance. Each time a user prints, the startup gathers data on the job’s success, quality, length, and material, among other information. The lab is also tackling security issues, improving human-machine interfaces, and, as a major challenge, enabling 3D printing with any plastic.

“There’s a crazy world of polymers that can be used for printing,” Perez said. “That’s a big aspect of what we’re working on.”