3-D printers are useful in many industries, as well as in the home and in space, but one limitation many of them share is the necessity of printing objects in a series of layers rather than as one continuous surface. This can give a rough quality to objects, which must often be hand-finished. A new printing method, highlighted in a TED Talk Monday night by co-creator Joseph DeSimone, does away with that weakness, allowing for smooth, continuous surfaces — and it's far faster than current 3-D machines, to boot.
Existing stereolithography printers shine light on a bath of photosensitive resin from below, solidifying a layer of the printed object flush with the bottom of the container. The platform is then lifted a few fractions of a millimeter to allow liquid resin to fill in the space, and the next layer is printed. To watch, it looks like a magic trick: a foot-tall object being lifted out of an inch-deep tray of liquid.
The new method, called continuous liquid interface production (CLIP), is similar in that it exposes the resin from below, but the researchers found a way to create a "dead zone" at the bottom of the bath where the resin remains liquid. Now, instead of creating a layer and then lifting it up by a set amount, the platform is constantly moving up very slowly, and the image being shined on the light-sensitive resin is constantly changing to keep pace with that movement.
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This creates an extremely smooth surface instead of a rough or jagged one, and while the process may look slow to our eyes, it's far faster than anything else out there. Formlabs' Form 1+ printer, which is perhaps the closest in principle to CLIP printing, creates objects at about 1-3 centimeters of height per hour. The CLIP method printed twice that in 10 minutes — roughly 10 times faster.
"Parts can be made with amazing properties very fast, often within tens of minutes versus hours," said DeSimone, a chemistry professor at University of North Carolina and founder of Carbon3D, in an email to NBC News.
3-D printing's sometimes rough results and interminable length have held it back from certain applications, but if CLIP is adopted, the much-hyped technology may find itself in the home and workplace, not just in heavy industry and design labs.