3D printing or Additive Manufacturing has been a leading trend amongst the printing industries for a few years now. From creating medical and dental synthetics and prosthetics to complex mechanical marvels like automobile parts and robotic aircrafts, it was only a matter of time before this engineering technology would start producing parts for itself. And eventually, be able to completely reproduce itself, once we figure out how to create data chips and other complicated processing systems that require a variety of finely tuned elements to make.
An ink supply retailer from the United Kingdom known as Ink Factory was thinking along the same lines when they decided to purchase a 3D printer and create the first ever functional 2D printer inkjet cartridge. Being a supplier of ink cartridges and printer supplies for the last 11 years, the decision to create a cartridge was less then farfetched to say the least. It all started with the notion that asks, “Would it be possible for the home user to print their own ink cartridges and (in doing) so save money?” Which soon lead to the team at Ink Factory to start planning the creation of a 2D print cartridge.
The first hurdle the team encountered was choosing which type of cartridge to replicate and what printer to test them in. Many manufacturers’ like HP and Canon have a plethora of new technologies and designs in each ink cartridge, such as data chips and Piezo elements to help regulate ink droplet amounts, levels of ink usage, and general communications with a printer’s software. With such a high amount of finely tuned, specific elements going into each cartridge, these manufactures were out of the question. Kodak, on the other hand, has only ever released two different ink cartridge types, the Kodak 10 series and Kodak 30 series ink cartridges. Additionally, the Kodak cartridges have a simple internal design and only one component that could not be fabricated with a 3D printer, (the ink bladder). After all, the current 3D printer models can only handle one element a time and PLA or ABS plastics are abundant, consistant, and hold no charge which are ideal for creating and testing out new operational inventions. The Kodak ESP C110 was selected as the test printer since it holds the Kodak 30 ink cartridges and is an extremely reliable and popular machine.
The next step after deciding what they wanted to print and how they wanted it to function, was designing a 3D model using a CAD (Computer Assisted Design) program. The team at Ink Factory purchased a MakerBot 2 printer which comes with SolidWorks, a CAD program used as a design engineering software tool. After carefully measuring each component and chamber of the original cartridge, it was time to create an accurately scaled layout or wire frame model of the Kodak 30 ink cartridges using SolidWorks. These 3D drawings are saved as .STL or Stereolithography files which utilize similar technology found in satellites. This technology basically measures light reflection distances off of surfaces to reproduce a scaled 3D model.
Once a computer animated model (or frame) has been completed using the SolidWorks or other 3D design engineering software, the printer will need to thinly slice the 3D drawing with another inclusive software program entitled MakerWare. MakerWare is MakerBot’s slicing engine, taking 3-Dimensional drafts and dividing them into numerous layers that the printer will be recreating during the printing process. Each 3D printer manufacturer has their own set of software, including a slicing engine and a 3D drafting CAD program.
With the designs being complete, it’s time to print. Ink Factory used PLA plastics to create their model Kodak 30 inkjet cartridges. This was primarily for cost efficiency and the fact that PLA plastics are easy to work with and strong when cooled or hardened from a liquid state. When the printer finishes printing each successive layer, the team at Ink Factory can scrape the newly fabricated cartridges off of the manufacturing faceplate. The new cartridges are then accessorized with the components unable to be manufactured during the printing process and filled using an Ink refill kit. Thus, home users will still not be able to create their own cartridges at home, unless they happen to have access to ink bladders, data chips, and the other miscellaneous components used to communicate with the printer.
Although this is not a universal solution to help lower replacement ink and toner costs, it does open the doors of what is possible with additive manufacturing. I remember the first article I wrote about NASA using 3D printing technology to create a pizza at the International Space Station. The first thought I had, was “this is straight out of Star Trek or some Sci-Fi futuristic movie.” Being able to tell the computer interface what you want and it fabricates the exact item out of thin air in some oversimplified, concaved wall set-up. “Computer, Earl Grey, Hot,” and out comes a steaming cup of Earl Gray tea. How many stories have you heard about a self replicating robot trying to take over the world? The ideas have always been there, they are just now getting the chance to become a reality.