3D printing has always had a problem with speed. Techniques that involve continuously printing layers and rapidly heating materials have moved the needle a bit—but it’s still too slow to be useful for a number of mainstream applications.
Now a research team from the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is aiming to give the industry a turbo-boost with a new way to print objects seemingly instantaneously.
Typically, 3D printing forms items by laying down one layer of plastic on top of another, solidifying continuous layers of resin using light, or even melting metal powder using lasers.
The new machine—which the team nicknamed the “replicator” after the machine from Star Trek—instead forms the entire item all in one go. It does this by shining light onto specific spots in a rotating resin that solidifies when exposed to a certain light level.
“We’ve carried out a range of prints taking from 30 seconds to a few minutes,” says senior author Hayden Taylor. He reckons that printing the same objects in the traditional way could take more than an hour.
While the machine competes on speed, it still cannot match the details and size that other printers can achieve. The biggest item it can print right now is just four inches (10 centimeters) in diameter. Other printers can make things measured in meters.
The sophistication of the machine lies in the software that creates intricate light patterns to accurate solidify the material.
The printer itself is fairly straightforward. It uses an off-the-shelf video projector plugged into a laptop that projects images of what you want to create, while a motor turns the cylinder of resin.
Taylor thinks that because it’s so relatively uncomplicated, both commercial and at-home versions of the printer are feasible. “The barrier to creating a very simple version of this tool is not that high,” he says.