3D printing is more than just a curiosity. For producing components in small numbers, it is much less expensive that making molds and dies. Conventional production techniques get very inexpensive when volumes reach 100,000 or more, but for prototypes that may need only a few finished products, 3D is the way to go. It also allows for faster changes to the design at little to no additional cost, something not possible with traditional production methods.
If 3D printing has one drawback today, it is that is is s..l..o..w. Researchers at the University of Michigan say they have created a new process that speeds things up by a factor of 100. The physics are a bit complex for a simple scribe like me, but their entire report is available for free on Science Advances. If topics like “Dual-wavelength volumetric photopolymerization confinement” titillate your brain cells, feel free to dive right in.
For the rest of us, here’s the gist of it as reported by Science Daily. “Rather than building up plastic filaments layer by layer, a new approach to 3D printing lifts complex shapes from a vat of liquid at up to 100 times faster than conventional 3D printing processes,” it says. With typical 3D printers, a big job can take weeks to complete and can require hundreds of machines. Cutting down the time is tough to do.
According to Timothy Scott, an associate professor of chemical engineering and professor Mark Burns, the new method “solidifies the liquid resin [rising from a vat] using two lights to control where the resin hardens — and where it stays fluid.” This enables the team to solidify the resin in more sophisticated patterns. They can make a 3D bas-relief in a single shot rather than in a series of 1D lines or 2D cross-sections. Their printing demonstrations include a lattice, a toy boat and a the letter M, which is the logo for the University of Michigan.
Rather than just controlling solidification in 2D the way current vat-printers do, the Michigan team can pattern the two kinds of light to harden the resin at essentially any 3D place near the illumination window. “It’s one of the first true 3D printers ever made,” Burns says. “You can get much tougher, much more wear-resistant materials,” Scott adds.
Where does the research go from here? The University has made three patent applications regarding the new technology and Timothy is preparing to launch a new startup company to bring the machines to market. 3D printing has almost unlimited uses in manufacturing. The increase in speed will expand its potential applications in research and the industrial world dramatically.