To demonstrate the system, MIT researchers designed and fabricated a variety of objects and say that it can even create a bone that may someday be used for surgical planning. (Credit: MIT)

A research team has developed a system for custom designing a variety of 3D printed objects with multiple materials. They say the system could be used for practical applications in the medical field such as creating high-quality replicas of objects like bones for surgeons to practice on or for developing more comfortable dentures and other products that would benefit from having both soft and rigid components.

The system allows users to vary the material properties at a very fine resolution that hasn’t been possible before. It enables designers to mix and match any combination of materials and also assign specific properties to different parts of the object, combining operators together to make new ones. To make a cube that is both rigid and elastic, a designer assigns a “rigid operator” to make one part rigid and an “elastomer operator” to the other part elastic; a third “gradient operator” connects the two and introduces a gradual transition between materials.

Users can preview their design in real time, rather than having to wait until the final steps in the printing process to see what it will look like. The team would like to create a community of designers who can share new operators with each other to expand the possibilities of what can be produced. They also hope to integrate the system into the workflow of existing CAD systems.