STEX25 Startup:
January 31, 2019 - April 30, 2020

The first 3D printer with eyes and brains

Davide Marini is the CEO of Inkbit Corporation, the MIT spinout that has developed a 3D printer that integrates a proprietary, first-of-its-kind vision system that enables feedback control operation and real-time error correction.

By: Daniel de Wolff

Not far from the banks of the Quabbin Reservoir lies the city of North Adams. It’s a place Inkbit’s CEO Davide Marini often visits during fly-fishing expeditions. It is home to MASS MOCA, housed in a formerly abandoned factory complex that once belonged to Sprague Electric Co. and before that to Arnold Print Works. The repurposed complex is a symbol of cultural and economic revival in this former industrial hub nestled in the Berkshires.

But evidence exists, in the form of abandoned and semi-abandoned brick buildings, of the economic downturn that impacted the area. Perhaps former paper mills and factories muses Davide. In these vestiges of a great manufacturing past, Davide sees the future. “My dream is to build out the factories of the future around Massachusetts,” he says. “We could create on-demand 3D printing factories that anybody could use with no need for upfront costs.” It is perhaps a grandiose dream, he’s the first to admit. But it’s a future you wouldn’t bet against if Davide Marini has decided it is worth pursuing.

Davide obtained his BS in Industrial Engineering from Politecnico of Milan and his PhD in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. While working as a researcher developing nanomaterials for bio-applications, he cofounded Firefly BioWorks, a startup that introduced a new multiplex diagnostic platform based on micro-fabricated particles that are individually encoded. Firefly was acquired by British research tools maker Abcam in 2015.

Not long after selling Firefly, Davide was introduced to MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Wojciech Matusik, who had been working to combine the fields of artificial intelligence and manufacturing. Matusik’s long-term goal is to develop fully automated fabrication systems capable of learning from their mistakes and improving over time. As a first step towards that vision, Prof. Matusik wanted to endow 3D printers with eyes and brains.

Marini and Matusik, now CEO and CTO at Inkbit, and their team developed a 3D printer with an integrated ultra-fast optical tomography scanner that surveys the topography of each layer immediately after deposition, so the printer can correct any discrepancy with the expected geometry. “We have built the first 3D printer with eyes,” says Davide. “It is a qualitative, fundamental change in the way 3D printing operates.”

At the most basic level, Inkbit’s platform is more accurate and reliable than existing 3D printers, and it has the ability to integrate external components, such as electronics, inside 3D printed parts. This is possible because the printer’s vision system allows it to see and print around existing objects. But perhaps the most important aspect of Inkbit’s 3D printer is the enabling power of its vision system beyond pure feedback control. “Once you have a machine with eyes, it is the first step towards having a machine that learns,” says Davide.

Imagine you want to make a product with intricate geometry, such as a microfluidic device for diagnostic applications, using a challenging material that has a tendency to shrink after printing. How do you obtain the desired geometry? Current 3D printers have to be meticulously calibrated, and even then, the manufactured parts often do not match the input models. Inkbit’s integrated vision system, on the other hand, volumetrically scans the product as it is being printed. These data are used to train a machine learning algorithm that incorporates material-specific behavior, such as shrinkage or warping, into the instructions sent to the printer. This allows accurate and repeatable printing of parts that are faithful to their desired geometry.

Initially supported by DARPA and the National Science Foundation, Inkbit’s first investor-backed round of funding came in December of 2017 from The IMA Group, a multinational company based in Bologna, Italy, that is the world leader in the design and manufacture of automatic machines for the processing and packaging of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and food. The potential for a more sophisticated form of drug packaging for specific drug delivery applications is what drew the attention of the Italian multinational. The IMA Group remains Inkbit’s largest shareholder to date.

Johnson & Johnson is also one of Inkbit’s strategic partners. The company approached Davide and his team with plans for a medical device. The object in question was too complicated for traditional methods of manufacturing due to an intricate geometry and the fact that it needed to be personalized for each individual patient. The team at Johnson & Johnson was impressed by the fact that Inkbit’s integrated vision system provides digital replicas of every object made. The digital twin ensures 100 percent quality control and traceability, a game-changing innovation for devices that undergo the vigorous scrutiny of FDA approval.

Because 3D printing is a broadly applicable technology, Inkbit is developing partnerships with leading companies from a variety of industries, including aerospace and defense, integrated electronics, athletic apparel, and even cosmetics. Their ideal customer falls into two categories: organizations looking to introduce new products that can’t be manufactured by traditional methods and those interested in disrupting the prototyping process.

“With our printer we can go from prototyping to short-run production, and all the way to volume manufacturing, on the same platform,” says Davide. “No other machine on the market today is capable of volume manufacturing of multi-material parts that are ready for end use.”

The traditional model for 3D printing companies is well established. Put simply, sell printers, materials, and software. On the other hand, with Davide at the helm, Inkbit is focused on working with customers to develop and launch new and disruptive products. This business model goes far beyond printing on demand. Inkbit aims to fully exploit the flexibility inherent in 3D printing, from the design stage to prototyping and full production. In collaboration with customers, they have developed novel biocompatible and high-temperature materials and even helped redesign products to maximize the power of additive manufacturing. “We want to offer a complete solution, where a customer can come to us with nothing more than an idea, and we help them iterate by rapid functional prototyping all the way to production,” he says.

Davide sees a trend towards on-demand remote manufacturing and an open-materials model that provides manufacturers the ability to purchase materials from a variety of sources. “I can envision a world where 3D printing capabilities are distributed,” says Davide. “Anybody with an idea will be able to upload a file and start testing a product and even launch it in the market with minimal capital.”

In many ways it’s a return to the world of the artisan. “My dream is to bring personality into high-volume manufacturing. In the future we will no longer think of brands but of the person who has designed the product. 3D printing can place the power of manufacturing into the hands of the individual.” And that dream begins with Inkbit and the innovation ecosystem powered by MIT. “Being a part of STEX25 is a great honor,” says Davide. “MIT has created an amazing community of entrepreneurs, engineers, and visionaries. In many ways it is starting to feel like how I picture Florence at the time of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi. The atmosphere is incredible."

Davide Marini-Inkbit
Davide Marini, Cofounder & CEO, Inkbit