An MIT team has created color-changing 3D prints

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Here’s another cool project out of MIT’s CSAIL labs. Researchers are looking to bring color-changing properties to the 3D-printing process in an attempt to help reduce material waste. That last bit is admittedly a pretty lofty goal as far as this project is concerned, but at the very least, it could go a ways toward making 3D printing for manufacturing even more compelling for consumers.

The process is built on top of a familiar 3D-printing process that uses UV light to cure a liquid resin into a solid object. What’s new, however, is the addition of photochromic dyes. Once added to a print, the inks create a surface that turns different colors, based on the kind of light it’s exposed to. The researchers call the technology “ColorFab,” playing on a pretty standard 3D-printing naming convention.

The tech is more than just some modern equivalent to those Hypercolor shirts, however. In a call with TechCrunch last week, MIT professor Stefanie Mueller compared the technology to E Ink — explaining that, once light is applied, it holds that color. It’s also more than just a simple color-changing tech — once the resolution is high enough, the system can be used to create complex patterns.

The team’s hope is that the ability to update a product’s surface might stem users’ impulse to frequently buy more junk.

“Everybody wants to have the latest phone, the latest phone case, the latest clothing,” says Mueller. “That basically creates more waste and requires more and more material. We asked the question of whether there’s any way to update existing products without needing new materials.”

It’s a lot to ask — and to put my cynical hat on for the moment, I can’t imagine companies adding features intended to end the cycle of constant product refreshes. But it’s a compelling addition to 3D printing nonetheless, and one that could be added to the process fairly easily in the not so distant future.