Voxel8 Continues the Multi-Material 3D Printing Revolution

Following the success of its electronics 3D printer, Voxel8 continues to push the field of multi-material additive manufacturing.

Over the past 10 years, the increased accessibility of 3D printing has allowed most people to experience the magic of additive manufacturing. Even with a low-cost, hobby 3D printer, users can print a custom object and watch it be built from the ground up. But not all machines rely on the thin plastic filaments used by hobby machines, and the field of 3D printing continues to see a rapid rate of innovation.  

One of the early challenges of 3D printing was the inability of printers to use multiple materials to create complex products. Now, with technology that can use customizable elastomers, engineers can print objects with both flexible and rigid parts. Voxel8’s ActiveLab 3D printer can print with elastomers ranging from soft and flexible to rigid and hard for applications spanning consumer, medical and industrial products.

Following Voxel8’s recent acquisition by Kornit Digital, let’s take a deep dive into the company’s innovative technology and the ways it has influenced the field of 3D printing since its founding in 2014.

The Brief 40-Year History of 3D Printing

The concept of additive manufacturing is much older than the modern 3D printing technology we use today. In the late 1800s, inventors proposed early ideas that hinted at the promise of 3D printing. In 1892, a patent was awarded to the inventor Joseph Blanther for a layering method to make 3D topographical maps.

The first patent related to 3D printing as we think of it today was awarded in 1980 to Dr. Hideo Kodama for a method that hardened a photopolymer mixture by exposing it to UV light. Although Kodama never commercialized his technology, it influenced the emergence of the modern additive manufacturing industry.

In 1986, prior to founding 3D Systems Corporation, Chuck Hull invented stereolithography (SLA), a process that prints objects one layer at a time using a system of lasers to link chains of molecules into polymers. This technology was used in the first 3D printer: SLA-1.

Chuck Hall (center) with the original SLA-1 following its recognition by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) as a historic landmark in mechanical engineering history. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems Corporation.)

Chuck Hall (center) with the original SLA-1 following its recognition by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) as a historic landmark in mechanical engineering history. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems Corporation.)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, 3D printing technology continued to grow and evolve. In 1989, fused deposition modeling (FDM) was invented by S. Scott and Lisa Crump. Most people are likely familiar with this technology, which involves printing objects layer by layer using melted polymer filaments.

As open-source technology gained popularity, Adrian Bowyer wanted to make a 3D printer that could print itself. With the RepRap, Bowyer achieved this dream by creating a 3D printer that could self-replicate.

Jumping off the idea of the RepRap, Makerbot helped expand the accessibility of 3D printing by making it available to everyone. The company began to sell open-source kits to make 3D printers and 3D-printed products and launched the largest repository of 3D-printable files: Thingiverse.

Since the launch of Makerbot in 2009, 3D printing has exploded and has led to everything from 3D-printed prosthetics and surgical implants to houses, cars, architecture and more. Voxel8 emerged on the 3D printing scene in 2014 and quickly impacted the 3D printing of wearables, shoes, textiles and more with its technology that can print both flexible and rigid polymers.

Emerging from Academia, Voxel8 Continues to Drive 3D Printing Innovation

Voxel8 is a product of Jennifer Lewis’ lab at Harvard University. The 3D printing company was founded in 2014 by a group of scientists and engineers, including Lewis, Daniel Oliver, Jack Minardi, Michael Bell, and Travis Busbee.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2015, Voxel8 showcased the world’s first 3D printer for electronics. The original Voxel8 Developer’s Kit was a low-cost 3D printer that could print using two different materials: polylactic acid (PLA) and conductive silver ink. At the conference, Voxel8 presented a quadcopter with the PLA and circuits printed in one setting and the battery, motors and electronics added in during printing.

The Voxel8 quadcopter was first presented at CES 2015. (Image courtesy of 3D Printing Industry.)

The Voxel8 quadcopter was first presented at CES 2015. (Image courtesy of 3D Printing Industry.)

These early demonstrations of Voxel8’s expertise and ingenuity paved the way for a new era of 3D-printed electronics and multi-material 3D printing. The company’s current ActiveMix technology allows the printing of high-performance elastomers that cover a wide range of material properties. ActiveMix uses both extrusion and spray deposition methods for its additive manufacturing.  

Extrusion is used to build complex 3D structures on any surface or textile material by using a unique type of fluid. Normal fluids exhibit a constant viscosity: the physics principle that makes honey and molasses pour slowly. However, ActiveMix uses non-Newtonian fluids, a material with viscosity that changes based on the strain rate. Extrusion uses these unique materials to create meshes and other designs that can impact the stretch and function of 3D-printed textiles.

ActiveMix also supports spray deposition that uses an elastomeric spray to cover and partially imbed in textiles. Without requiring stitching or manual labor, manufacturers can use this unique process to modify textile stretch and strength and cover flexible materials. A demonstration of spray deposition can be seen here.

With the two types of deposition, the ActiveMix system allows for precision tuning of textile properties for a wide variety of applications. For example, thickness and stiffness can be zonally mapped along a sliding scale to create 3D-printed objects that range from soft and elastic (like a rubber band) to hard and stiff (like a plastic container).

ActiveImage expands the applications of Voxel8’s 3D printing capabilities by embedding high-resolution graphics into custom printable elastomers. The process works by first digitally designing the material mechanics and Inkjet images desired for the final product. Extrusion or spray deposition is then used to print elastomeric material directly on the fabric to modify its mechanical properties. An inkjet printer then applies a high-resolution graphic on top of the elastomers.

All this technology is packed into Voxel8’s current hardware: the ActiveLab Digital Fabrication System. This workhorse 3D printer is designed with innovation and industry in mind, allowing companies to scale from prototyping to production within a few weeks. The printing system uses a gantry motion system and multi-material printing to create printable gradients of elastomers to modify textile properties without the need for stitching or adhesives. Using the Voxel8 Rhino plug-in, engineers can create dynamic and tunable mechanics for virtually any product. Essentially, ActiveLab offers a one-stop solution for digital fabrication and printing of custom features for textile-based products. A true game changer for wearables, smart fabrics and footwear.

Voxel8’s ActiveLab Digital Fabrication System. (Image courtesy of Voxel8.)

Voxel8’s ActiveLab Digital Fabrication System. (Image courtesy of Voxel8.)

How is this achieved? Voxel8 uses a single set of raw materials that are differentially mixed to create unique elastomers that deliver a range of mechanical properties—all from a single printer.

Innovation is still at the heart of Voxel8, and many of the company’s founders continue to lead robust research efforts at institutions across the United States. For example, the Lewis Lab continues to study the assembly of soft materials, including biomaterials and structural materials, as a part of the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard.

From Athletic Wear to Medicine: The Many Applications of Voxel8 Technology

Voxel8’s viscosity tuning of elastomers creates a remarkably customizable product that is being adopted by medical, industrial and consumer-focused companies.

Manufacturers use Voxel8 technology to make athletic footwear with performance-optimized seams and functional designs. Recently, Hush Puppies shoes used Voxel8 technology to make 3D-printed, comfort-optimized insoles.

Beyond shoes, ActiveMix technology enhances sports equipment to increase its cushioning, grip and other safety features. The technology can also create support and compression for athletic apparel like sports bras and socks.  

Additionally, Voxel8 technology is improving the wearables industry by printing custom electrical components directly on textiles for health monitoring applications. The variable elasticity of the printing process is also helpful for custom braces, medical devices and industrial robotics that require grip or variable design properties.

A New Future for Voxel8 Following the Kornit Digital Acquisition

Kornit Digital is a global leader in digital textile production, making its acquisition of Voxel8 an important step in the continued development of 3D-printed apparel and footwear.

“By integrating Voxel8’s technology into Kornit’s product roadmap, we will be able to transform numerous market segments and verticals, accelerating our collective visions and technology advancements,” said Kobi Mann, Kornit Digital chief technology officer. “Voxel8 offers direct 3D print-on-part capabilities, advanced design software that can be easily integrated with any production floor software workflow, and versatile chemistry enabling on-the-fly formulation of high-performance elastomers to change the material properties of the resulting printed structures by multiple orders of magnitude. This means reflective, high-density, silicone and metallics, as well as compression elements for sports and therapeutics, protection elements like cushioning and impact resistance, and functionality applications like anti-slip, waterproofing, and other qualities combining form and function that are key to Kornit’s vision of digitizing production in every conceivable manner.”

As the wearables industry continues to grow, Kornit is looking to use its acquisition of Voxel8 to drive innovation in consumer fashion. But, for now, we will have to wait and see how Voxel8’s unique technology will continue to shape printable electronics and custom textiles.