Steelcase teams up with MIT on new 3-D printing method

3-D printed furniture by Steelcase and MIT.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A West Michigan furniture giant is taking high tech to a new level.

Steelcase has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create a product unlike any the industry has seen before.

“Innovation happens at that intersection between desirability, feasibility and viability,” Rob Poel, Steelcase’s director of New Business Innovation, said during a Tuesday interview with 24 Hour News 8 at company headquarters on 44th Street in Grand Rapids.

Poel said the desire to innovate — to bring unique, personalized products to consumers — drove Steelcase to explore a new project with MIT, a long-time partner. They landed on 3-D printing, but not the traditional method.

Created in the 1980s, traditional 3-D printing has struggled to create at-scale products — and do so with speed.

That’s not the case with the new Steelcase-MIT venture.

“They came upon this idea of printing in gel,” Poel said.

A large vat of gel, to be more precise. They call it Rapid Liquid Printing.

Video released by Steelcase shows the project’s prototype being made in an MIT lab.

“So there’s a nozzle that’s using real-world materials that go into our products, and it’s like drawing in space,” Poel explained. “And so by having that suspension around it, you’re not having to create the suspension that holds the product and it gives you the ability to sort of free-form create the product and then instantly cures within the gel.”

3-D printed furniture by Steelcase and MIT.

The video shows it only takes about 28 minutes to print an at-scale table top. Poel says a project of the same size would have taken hours — if not days — using the traditional 3-D printing process.

“I think the process is a breakthrough. So we’re excited to see where it can go,” he said.

A handful of prototype products were made out of rubber, but Steelcase and MIT are exploring the possibility of printing with metal or wood.

And while the project is still in early, experimental stages, there’s excitement building.

Poel said the kind of technology could probably be used beyond furniture.

“We’re intrigued by how this could be applied to other products,” he said. “And I think other manufacturers, other makers, are going to continue to leverage this technology to differentiate themselves.”