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Op-Ed: New University of Michigan 3D light printing 100x faster

The new University of Michigan process is explained in Science Daily, outlining the principles of using light to shape resins in a vat of liquid. Vat based 3D printing has previously been only viable for small objects, and very finicky in terms of managing materials, which tend to oxidize.
Using light to harden polymers has been around a long time, but this new method is a big step up in multiple ways.
Key features of this process are:
• The use of two light sources for shaping, and managing the previous issues with layering weak spots in conventional 3D printing.
• The new method allows for a range of additional production options, like adding strengthening compounds.
• The use of a light to prevent unwanted solidification allows vat printing to be carried out far more efficiently.
• This type of 3D printing is much faster. Although 3D printers have become considerably quicker than in the past, the cost of production time is a big problem. This new form of printing is extremely fast, solving a major cost issue for commercial manufacturing.
The information available regarding the new process is a little short on detail. The technical description indicates a mix of problem solving of conventional hardening technologies, combined with multiple system-specific technologies to manage resin.
Research is obviously at the “proof of method” stage, with a very large range of obvious developmental options.
University of Michigan has applied for three patents, indicating that the method has passed another critical test – Researchers believe in it, to the point of forming a startup company to manage the IP and commercial applications of the new printing tech. That’s a real vote of confidence, in the incredibly competitive, very tough business environment of 3D printing.
Why is vat photo printing so important?
In any other area of manufacturing, that would be a rhetorical question. In 3D printing, it’s THE big issue. This has been the need since day one of 3D printing; how to make 3D printing practical for a vast range of applications.
Those applications include:
• Design
• Invention
• Engineering
• Consumer products
• Arts
• Merchandising
• Medical applications
• Appliances
• Smart tech applications
• Home tech and goods
• Product assembly
In short, just about everything humans can do could benefit from high speed, high precision 3D printing. 3D printing gripped the imagination, and wallets, of people like designers, artists, engineers, and other creative people the minute it came on the market. It’s now mainstream, despite the limitations of current tech.
The benefits of this new approach include:
• Making 3D printing more agile for practical design
• Reducing time and cost of prototyping and experimentation
• Drastically improving production time and cost efficiencies
• Matching 3D CAD with 3D printing, creating a lot of new options across the board.
A few obvious issues:
This is the early stage of this technology. Resins are OK, but some things need to be made out of other materials. This is already in process, using more efficient materials to deliver 3D metal printing, etc. Vat printing will need to show that it can do these things. It’s quite possible that this type of 3D printing will be able to manipulate solutions of multiple materials to create products.
(Like a recipe, you could add tin, resin, silica gel, pigments, whatever, etc. and mix as a solution to make a structure. All you’d need to do is calibrate the lights accordingly to manage these materials. You may need a few more lights, too. There’s a lot of number crunching to do, but it’ll be worth doing.)
Hard numbers will be required for productivity to get big capital involved. This equates to defining the degree of difficulty of production divided by time and cost and proving commercial viability. That may not be as difficult as it sounds, given that manufacturing is always receptive to better production values. This tech already has an advantage in speed which will go a long way to delivering the right numbers for investors.
The high precision issues in 3D printing, explained
One of the most demanding, and necessary, factors in making any kind of product is precision standards. Even basic production requires a pretty high level of accuracy, and most modern products require excellent fits of components, etc.
The good news in this regard is that light can be incredibly accurate. This type of 3D printing could deliver “high definition” standards of precision, in any kind of design environment.
If you’re not a design person:
• The maniacal obsession of designers with high precision is based on a mix of functionality and real challenges which designers thoroughly enjoy.
• Design elements, the components of design, can be better designed, and more efficient/artistic/fun with high precision tools like 3D CAD. The problem has been not being able to deliver hard products to that level of precision with 3D printing, despite many years of noble efforts.
• Designers, engineers and other artists like to doodle, experiment with shapes and forms, and test their ideas. This is the creative process working at full blast, and it needs to be able to work with ideas ASAP, efficiently and above all at the same speed as the creative thinking. This new type of 3D printing could produce a virtual design Renaissance, making it possible to create whole new ideas in solids, and work with them. (If people like Da Vinci, Tesla, and others had had high precision 3D printers, we’d be living in a different world.)
University of Michigan has just done the world a favour. If this tech can be developed to Easy Bake level, it’ll quite literally make the future.

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Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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