3D Printing 100 Times Faster With Light

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A new way to 3D print, developed at the University of Michigan, uses two lights to control the solidification of resin, enabling complex shapes to be pulled from a vat at 100 times the print speed of conventional 3D printers, and was demonstrated by printing a block M in a U-M chemical engineering lab in Ann Arbor, MI on December 6, 2018. This project was co-led by Timothy Scott, associate professor of chemical engineering and Mark Burns, T.C. Chang Professor of Engineering and professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering. Photo: Evan Dougherty/Michigan Engineering

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, University of Michigan researchers have shown.

3D printing could change the game for relatively small manufacturing jobs, producing fewer than 10,000 identical items, because it would mean that the objects could be made without the need for a mold costing upwards of $10,000. But the most familiar form of 3D printing, which is sort of like building 3D objects with a series of 1D lines, hasn’t been able to fill that gap on typical production timescales of a week or two.

“Using conventional approaches, that’s not really attainable unless you have hundreds of machines,” said Timothy Scott, U-M associate professor of chemical engineering who co-led the development of the new 3D printing approach with Mark Burns, the T.C. Chang Professor of Engineering at U-M.

Their method solidifies the liquid resin 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 block M.

“It’s one of the first true 3D printers ever made,” said Burns, professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering.

But the true 3D approach is no mere stunt—it was necessary to overcome the limitations of earlier vat-printing efforts. Namely, the resin tends to solidify on the window that the light shines through, stopping the print job just as it gets started.

By creating a relatively large region where no solidification occurs, thicker resins—potentially with strengthening powder additives—can be used to produce more durable objects. The method also bests the structural integrity of filament 3D printing, as those objects have weak points at the interfaces between layers.