Is 3D printing on the brink of another breakthrough?
Just as we thought the 3D print revolution had come to a temporary halt, researchers in the US have reported a promising breakthrough. They've developed a brand-new 3D printing technique that can render three-dimensional objects up to 100 times faster than conventional processes using LED lighting. Read on to learn more about this new discovery.
How does 3D printing with LEDs work?
This new approach to printing 3D objects seems to be simple yet effective: it uses one UV light and one blue light, which can both essentially come from off-the-shelf LEDs, a glass tray, and a stage to gradually lift the object out of the bath of liquid in the tray below. This makes this experimental technology not only incredibly fast, but also quite affordable.
The liquid needed for this process is the only thing on the list that might be a little more difficult to acquire. It's a specially formulated, chemical resin that hardens (polymerises) when exposed to a particular shade of blue light. The UV light helps keep the item separated from the bottom of the glass tray during the printing process. Without it, the resin would harden immediately upon contact with the blue light beam. As a result, it would be near impossible to detach it from the glass without risking damage.
Being extremely sensitive to the wavelengths of both the UV and blue light, the resin can be penetrated by the light beams at different intensities. This allows you to seamlessly 'draw' different shapes and patterns into the liquid and quickly form an object.
Will this approach influence manufacturing?
Timothy Scott, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan who co-led the development of this experimental technique, says they've essentially developed the first true 3D printer which prints entire 3D wedges rather than simply stacking a series of two-dimensional layers. He describes the ability to pattern a volume like this in liquid as "straight-up unique".
According to the official statement released by the University of Michigan, the technology has the potential to be used for smaller manufacturing jobs of 10,000 identical items or less. Currently in talks with potential commercial and manufacturing partners, Timothy Scott hopes to be able to deliver the first printed products by the end of this year or early 2020.
The true commercial potential of this invention is currently only limited by the number of materials that can be polymerised in this process. However, Scott is certain that resin won't remain the only material the printer will be able to work with. If, for example, you were to add ceramic particles to the resin formula, the printed object could be finished off in a ceramic oven. This will dissolve the resin and only leave a ceramic mould behind.
What else is on the horizon?
Printing with LED is not the only invention shaking up 3D printing processes. Not too long ago, the US startup Desktop Metals developed two 3D printing systems that have the ability to print metals a lot faster and at the fraction of the cost of other print solutions. The first is intended for prototyping, the other for manufacturing. The invention attracted a number of high-profile investors, including Google Ventures.
The 3D printing revolution might have taken a slightly different turn to what some of us may have been envisioning, but these inventions show that there are many more exciting twists and turns on the 3D horizon.