This 3D printer uses paper as the ink

Have you ever seen a paper airplane quite like this?

Mcor paper airplane

This solid model was created using a 3D printer - no folding required.

Most 3D printers work by laying down layers of a resin or heated plastic material to gradually render a 3D object created by a 3D modeling program. But Mcor Technology's Matrix 3D printer uses paper as the "ink." The technology is a greener way to build 3D prototypes than plastic-jet printers and other 3D printing technologies, and for design shops that keep their 3D printers busy, operating costs can be substantially lower.

Mcor, based in Ireland, has been selling the technology in Europe since 2008, but just began marketing it in the U.S. last year. So far, McCormack says, the company has placed a few hundred machines with architects and product design engineers and is hoping it will catch on in the U.S. as a greener, and lower-cost alterative to the traditional 3D printing technologies.

How it works

Mcor Technologies' Matrix 3D printer builds an object, such as the model airplane shown above, one sheet at a time. It interleaves sheets of everyday office printer paper with layers of an adhesive that binds them. As the object rises up from the print surface (it takes 10 sheets of paper to build up 1 millimeter of height), tungsten carbide blades sculpt away excess paper that is not part of the design, creating a finished object up to 400 cubic inches in size.

Objects can be rendered in color by varying the color in the paper bin.

Mcor color tires

Mcor markets the technology as a green alternative, since it doesn't use plastic or resins to create the object. Also, other technologies for rending 3D objects typically require a post-processing step to remove excess build and support material. That might involve blowing away a powder residue, soaking the object in a dipping station filled with water or  solvent, or using some sort of cutter (see the recent story on 3D printing technologies and the 3D printer technology comparison chart).

With output from the Matrix printer, excess paper surrounding the object can be quickly pulled away with your fingers, and the waste product can be tossed into the paper recycle bin.

"We use a water-based adhesive, it's extremely low cost to make the parts and its the most eco-friendly technology," says Dr. Conor MacCormack, CEO and cofounder. The technology, he says, has been especially popular with architectural firms, which use it for building models.

"We're very interested in sustainability," says James Russell, CAD advisor at the Rapidform department at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. His organization acts as a service bureau for students that need to render 3D objects they have designed.

The value proposition

Mcor's 3D printing technology isn't the only thing that's unique about the offering. While its competitors first sell the printer and then sell a lucrative stream of consumables, Mcor offers a subscription service. The 1-year service plan costs $16,000 -- about where purchase prices for most industrial grade 3D printers start -- but includes use of the machine as well as unlimited carbide blade replacements and adhesives. You supply the paper.

The primary advantage of the technology is the total operating cost, says Russell. RCA's in-house service bureau offers students a wide range of 3D printing technologies. "We have two Zcorp printers and we spend almost $1,800 a month on materials," and the cost per month for plastic jet printers is even more, he says (see the feature comparison table for a description of these printing technologies). The Matrix, he says, might cost one tenth the price to operate.

On the down side, a finished product using Mcor's process has about 1/10th the strength of the ABS plastic parts created by plastic jet printers, and the compressed paper parts can be relatively heavy. It's not a fit for every 3D printing application, Russell says. For example, the technology also doesn't work as well with models that have thin walls of less than 2mm, sections with pipes or rods in them, or circular cross-sections, he says. But RCA students do use the Matrix for "a multitude" of different components.

RCA students typically to use the printer to create early prototypes. "Many students have to do five or six iterations and they don't want an expensive technology to do that," he says. So they start with the Matrix before moving to more expensive 3D printing processes for general assembly or destructive testing of objects.

The sustainability angle is nice, but MacCormack knows that cost savings are what sells. Customers, he says, like the idea of a fixed price. "No one else does this in the 3D printing space," he says. But if Mcor's technology catches on, that could change in a hurry.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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