Nicknamed the “replicator” by the inventors — after the Star Trek device that can materialize any object on demand — the 3D printer can create objects that are smoother, more flexible and more complex than what is possible with traditional 3D printers. It can also encase an already existing object with new materials — for instance, adding a handle to a metal screwdriver shaft — which current printers struggle to do.
The technology has the potential to transform how products from prosthetics to eyeglass lenses are designed and manufactured, the researchers say.
“I think this is a route to being able to mass-customize objects even more, whether they are prosthetics or running shoes,” said Hayden Taylor, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley and senior author of a paper describing the printer, which appears online today (Jan. 31) in the journal Science.
“The fact that you could take a metallic component or something from another manufacturing process and add on customizable geometry, I think that may change the way products are designed,” Taylor said.
A CT scan — in reverse
The new printer was inspired by the computed tomography (CT) scans that can help doctors locate tumors and fractures within the body.
CT scans project X-rays or other types of electromagnetic radiation into the body from all different angles. Analyzing the patterns of transmitted energy reveals the geometry of the object.
“Essentially we reversed that principle,” Taylor said. “We are trying to create an object rather than measure an object, but actually a lot of the underlying theory that enables us to do this can be translated from the theory that underlies computed tomography.”
Besides patterning the light, which requires complex calculations to get the exact shapes and intensities right, the other major challenge faced by the researchers was how to formulate a material that stays liquid when exposed to a little bit of light, but reacts to form a solid when exposed to a lot of light.
The 3D printing resin is composed of liquid polymers mixed with photosensitive molecules and dissolved oxygen. Light activates the photosensitive compound which depletes the oxygen. Only in those 3D regions where all the oxygen has been used up do the polymers form the “cross-links” that transform the resin from a liquid to a solid. Unused resin can be recycled by heating it up in an oxygen atmosphere, Taylor said.
The objects also don’t have to be transparent. The researchers printed objects that appear to be opaque using a dye that transmits light at the curing wavelength but absorbs most other wavelengths.
Indrasen Bhattacharya of UC Berkeley is co-first author of the work. Other authors include Christopher M. Spadaccini of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
This work was supported by UC Berkeley faculty startup funds and by Laboratory-Directed Research and Development funds from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The team has filed a patent application on the technique.