As if the very idea of printing 3-dimensional objects out of plastic isn’t crazy enough, there’s another aspect to it that never fails to blow minds when I talk about it to faculty, staff, and students at UMW. The Makerbot supports 3 different types of material with it’s hotend extruder nozzle, ABS, PLA, and Water Soluble PVA. ABS and PLA are just two types of plastic that have different melting points and get treated a bit differently (we have up until now printed solely with ABS as it is the most popular and reliable plastic). But what is water soluble PVA?

This newer material gets interesting mostly when talking about the recently released Replicator which has 2 nozzles for extrusion. The reason being that water soluble PVA, much as the name implies, dissolves in water. this means you can use it to print support material alongside your regular print that will later dissolve away in water leaving a solid structure. The possibilities this affords are great for things like visualizing mathematical functions which can take ornate and complex shapes that can be practically impossible to print without a support structure in place.

Using PVA we can have limitless overhangs on prints, build in clean rafts for prints without worrying about how to detach them later, and begin to tackle the more complex prints that our students might begin to create in Blender or Google Sketchup. Because it’s not practical to switch materials mid-print, the Replicator (or modifying a Thing-O-Matic with a second extruder head) is really a necessity to taking advantage of this technology. I have high hopes that we’ll see this at UMW in the coming months as we continue to experiment in this new space and see what’s possible. What ideas could you come up with using a dissolvable support structure like PVA?

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