How does the world’s first full-color 3D printer work? We ask its creators
A few weeks ago, we were absolutely excited over the prospect of the ProDesk3D, a full-color 3D printer in the works from a New York-based startup named botObjects. Unlike every 3D printer that we’ve seen so far, the ProDesk3D color palate isn’t limited to a handful of pre-colored spools of plastic. This printer promised to create a whole rainbow of colors, not unlike an inkjet printer using a five-color cartridge.
It was an amazing promise accompanied by a pair of computer-generated images of the printer with too many unanswered questions. In fact, there was more we didn’t know about the ProDesk3D than what we did know. We didn't know what combination of five colors it would mix together, how it would print, what it could actually print, when it would come out, or how much it would cost.
First off, an answer to the burning question: How does the ProDesk3D pull off its full-color 3D-printing process? According to botObjects, it's all in the mixing chamber. The printer injects five colors of PLA (Polylactic Acid) plastic—cyan, magenta, yellow, black, and white—into a mixing chamber at different proportions to create a wide array of colors. Once the colored plastic runs through the mixing chamber, it's released through one of the printer's dual extruding heads, while the other head extrudes the PVA scaffolding material that supports your model as it prints.
But multi-color printing is only part of the story. BotObjects also hopes to improve the output quality of extrusion-based 3D printing in general. Most current consumer-grade 3D printers have limited printing resolution, with visible layers that make printouts look and feel little rough.
“The thing about fused deposition modeling [FDM] desktop printers is most people haven’t seen 25-micron height layering and they’re wondering where the lines are,” botObjects co-founder Mike Duma told TechHive. “If you take our contemporaries like the MakerBot, which is printing at 100 microns, you can see lines.”
By quadrupling the resolution of filament-based 3D prints, botObjects essentially wants to do to extrusion-based 3D printing what Apple’s Retina Display did with smartphone screens with its tiny, imperceptible pixels.
To prove the point, botObjects released a close-up photo of a 3D-printed vase that has nearly perfectly smooth surfaces to show what the printer can do. Martin says that people who saw the image on the botObjects site asked them if the vase was treated with acetone, which melts and smooths most 3D printer plastics, because 25 micron resolution printing has never been achieved with FDM printing before. According to Martin, only stereolithography (SLA) printing techniques—as used by the Formlabs and Nanoscribe printers—have been able to achieve this high of a print resolution.
This high resolution also allows the ProDesk3D to create objects with seamless color transitions. Mike pointed out that in addition to creating fine color gradients on objects, you can also create hard color transitions. Mike gave the example of how a 3D print of a cartoon character could have one color for its face and white for its eyes without any hues bleeding into each other.
The entire color process is taken care of by botObjects ProModel software. The program not only figures out how to mix the colors in order to achieve the desired hue, but it will also let you add colors to pre-existing 3D model files. The ProDesk3D will also be able to connect to both Macs and Windows PCs.
BotObjects says it has been working on the ProDesk3D for more than two years. Martin, a self-labeled 3D-printing enthusiast, and Mike, a builder of 3D printers, wanted to build off of the current range of filament-based 3D printers like the Solidoodle lineup and the MakerBot Replicator 2, and create a example of where the technology could be in five years.
“You need to create the professional finish; otherwise, FDM falls behind other kinds of processes like SLA, and so it was really important...for us to [not only] print 25 microns but print that at [high] speed,” said Martin.
As designed, the ProDesk3D should be able to print at a rate of 175 millimeters per second. According to Martin, most commercial printers can only print as fast as 150 millimeters per second. The ProDesk3D can do this thanks to a three-fan system that allows it to cool objects more quickly, while preventing warping, curling, and other issues that arise when a 3D-printed object cools unevenly.
In addition, the ProDesk3D will have a large build area—the space that dictates how large an object you can print. With the ProDesk3D, you'll be able to fabricate items that measure up to 11.8 by 10.8 by 10.8 inches. By comparison, the MakerBot Replicator 2’s build area measures 11.2 by 6 by 6.1 inches.
BotObjects expects to ship the ProDesk3D in October, but you can pre-order one now over the phone, with online ordering coming soon. The standard ProDesk3D will cost $2849, while the newly revealed blue limited edition is priced at $3349. This limited edition will come with three additional 5-color cartridge sets and three PVA support material cartridges. To put this in perspective, a MakerBot Replicator 2 costs $2199, and the Replicator 2x is $2799.
The ProDesk3D printer sounds like the next big thing for filament-based 3D printing, but we’ll have to wait and see if it really works as promised when botObjects demonstrates the printers this summer and ships them this fall.