3D Printer Uses Standard Paper
The Holy Grail of the rapid prototyping world is a RP machine that is as reliable, easy to use, and inexpensive as a 2D printer. We aren’t there yet, but one company is taking a step closer by taking the challenge literally – using plain office paper as the primary build material.
Mcor Technologies of Ardee, Ireland has developed a US$22,000 3D printer that combines an eco-friendly water-based adhesive with standard A4/letter paper to create wood-like three-dimensional models. Its Mcor Matrix is currently being beta tested at Irish universities, with an official launch set for the TCT 2008 Conference in Coventry, England. Reached by RapidToday at his office near the River Dee in northeast Ireland, Mcor Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Conor MacCormack says simply, “They’re running well.”
Within the industry there is much skepticism regarding the Matrix, due to the meager performance of other once-promising laminated object manufacturing (LOM) technologies. LOM pioneer and RP industry stalwart Helisys sold more than 375 systems during the 1990s, yet folded in 2000. (Today it is succeeded by Cubic Technologies, which provides parts and service on old Helisys machines). Using a carbon dioxide laser to cut successive cross sections out of special adhesive-coated paper, Helisys struggled early on with reliability, and never sufficiently recovered.
A number of companies have picked up the LOM torch, many specializing in plastic or metal laminates. Solido of Israel manufactures a desktop machine that bonds layers of plastic film to form objects. Stratoconception is a French company that uses CNC to perform thick-layer LOM for metal and other materials. Japan’s Kira Corporation has a machine that is the most similar to Mcor’s. Kira’s second generation RapidMockup machine (the PLT-20 KATANA) was launched in 2006, uses a knife to cut special paper, and costs about US$35,000.
When MacCormack and a partner started working on the Matrix in 2002 as a part-time endeavor, they were determined to use low cost materials that are “easily available and very cheap,” he says. Plain paper was an obvious candidate, but there would have to be a technology breakthrough to figure a way to bond it, especially using standard white polyvinyl acetate (PVA) glue. “If you drop it on a piece of paper, it’s going to blister because of the water content,” explains MacCormack, a mechanical engineer with a PhD in finite element analysis.
The breakthrough was a now-patented adhesive dispensing system that deposits thousands of tiny glue dots on each layer. Crucially, relatively fewer dots are applied to throw-away areas, allowing for easy weeding of waste material. (This is an important improvement over Helisys’ approach, where adhesive density is uniform in all areas, and waste removal, or “de-cubing,” can be laborious, despite laser cross-hatching of waste areas).
The rest of the Matrix uses existing technology, a conscious decision, says MacCormack, to ensure the reliability of the machine. To save on costs, the unit uses a tungsten carbide drag blade instead of a laser. The company’s proprietary Slice-IT software prepares the STL file for building.
Besides the technical hurdles, Mcor also has an educational challenge on its hands. Unlike the rest of the 2D and 3D printing industry, Mcor can’t sell its printer for cheap, then make it up in pricey consumable sales. (Mcor plans to initially supply its own glue that is “a little modified,” says MacCormack, but hopes to transition to standard store-bought white glue eventually.)
Breakeven hardware sales coupled with lucrative ongoing income streams from consumables is standard practice among Hewlett Packard and the other ink printing giants, as well as in other industries (e.g. cheap Gillette razors with expensive replacement blades). Most of the additive fabrication industry uses the same business model for its resins or powders. Fused deposition modeling (FDM) leader Stratasys reportedly makes around 60 percent of its operating margins on consumables, according to a Piper Jaffray & Co. analyst. (Wohlers Report 2008 says that Minnesota-based Stratasys supplied 44 percent of all systems supplied worldwide in 2007. The company shipped 577 units in the first quarter of 2008, and posted net income of US$3.8 million.)
Photo courtesy Mcor Technologies
Roll out of the Matrix is scheduled to be gradual: first the UK, then the rest of Europe, then North America in 2009. MacCormack has highest hope for the educational, architectural, and medical markets. His Matrix has already come to the rescue once: When a traditionally 3D-printed skull was being fitted for titanium plates for a cranioplasty, it kept breaking because of its material-saving thin-shell design. With the Matrix, there is no benefit to hollowing out the model. Other applications that benefit from thick walls are patterns for sand or investment casting.
Despite not yet providing proof of a commercially-viable product, the future for Mcor looks bright. It has 19 employees, has secured outside funding (MacCormack won’t say how much), has developed an exciting (and patented) technology, and is already working on new and different hardware projects. “It’s too early to say [what they are],” says MacCormack, “but they are the same ethos of breaking the mold of conventional 3D printers.”
Mcor Matrix Specifications
Warranty: 1 year
Maintenance: US$5,000 for a five-year contract
Availability: Late 2008 in Europe; 2009 in North America
Consumables: Paper, adhesive, and blade
Build Speed: Medium
Resolution: X & Y is .05mm; Z is .1mm (paper thickness dependant)
Max Build Volume: 297mm X 210mm X 150mm tall
Clean Up: Water
Color: Determined by paper color
Finish: Harden with cyanoacrylate adhesive (superglue), then sand and paint
Other: Simultaneous multiple part build capability
Source: Mcor Technologies
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