It has been more than 30 years since engineer Charles “Chuck” Hull invented 3D printing to quickly turn computer designs into prototypes, but it has really taken off in recent years. Now, 3D printing is not only changing the way we design, but it’s also changing the way we produce everything from medical devices to jet engines. Rapid, on-demand prototyping and manufacturing still has a flaw—there is no “undo” button. If a design isn’t quite right then the whole object has to be scrapped so the printer can start over. A new system aims to solve that problem, by giving 3D printers the ability to patch what they print.
The new approach is a collaboration between Cornell University and the Hasso Plattner Institute in Germany. The team of researchers built a 3D printer that has a built-in 3D scanner and a milling head that enable it to make changes to existing prototypes. When engineers want to make a change to their prototype, they input the design changes into a 3D modeler, and then both the original and modified models are then processed software that determines what changes need to be made. Engineers place their prototype back inside the printer, where a built-in 3D scanner analyzes it and then a milling head shaves off the area to be fixed. Then a standard 3D printing head rebuilds that portion of the prototype.
This new ability to tweak 3D printed prototypes saves time and materials and encourages design iteration. As Hull himself has said about 3D printing, “The whole premise of this technology has been to foster creativity, and change in product design and manufacturing.”