Inside Autodesk’s 3D printer plans

When Autodesk debuted its first 3D printer earlier this year and released the blueprints for free, the move was seen as little more than a sophisticated attempt at raising awareness about the likewise open-source modelling software it introduced for makers in conjunction. But in retrospect, the launch marked the first act in a far more ambitious plan for the hardware side of the business.

And the second act is now upon us. Revealed in the latest batch of the company’s patent filings to have reached their mandatory publication date is a modular successor to the original machine that can dispense up to seven different materials at once in a wide range of combinations, granularity levels and, of course, colors. Meet Autodesk’s vision for the future of 3D printing:

The specific mix that ends up on build surface can vary greatly depending on the individual elements inside the filament modules shown to the right. The patent application indicates that the printer will work with practically anything that can be melted down within its unspecified operating temperature and poured out, including elastomers and conductive materials.

Once it’s time to turn the raw ingredients into a new project, the filaments are piped through the tubes by hidden motors installed on the back of the modules to the printer head hanging from the top of the frame, which is where the magic happens. The first stop is an helix-shaped mixing chamber where the liquefied materials are combined before leaving through the nozzle.

Not shown in the illustration above is a slide pin placed horizontally right where the tubes plug into the mixing chamber that Autodesk plans to implement for flow control in models that use only a single motor instead of one per every filament module to drive the materials. That version will likely cost less than its more mechanized sibling, but that’s just the tip of the configuration iceberg.

Where it gets really interesting is when you add extra nozzles. Up to four can be fitted on the printer head, a major benefit for projects that combine components with varying granularity. You could use a large-diameter nozzle to quickly fab parts that require relatively little accuracy and only use the smaller ones for more delicate components.

Autodesk specifies in its filing that nozzle openings will measure less than 0.75 square millimeters, a limit that presumably represents the largest available option. That’s what you’d use to create support elements such as placeholder filings to help preserve the structure of a hollow object during manufacturing.

Not having to print all of that through the tiniest opening just because one small section requires extra precision can quicken the process considerably, which reflects an emphasis on speed deeply ingrained into the overall design. Accordingly, some configurations will have gearboxes on the printer head for cases where turn momentum takes priority over maximizing top velocity.