Current 3-D printing technology is really just 2-D printing, repeated ad infinitum. Thin 2-D layers of material are printed until finally, hours later, a widget emerges. This can’t be the full story of the 3-D printing revolution everyone seems to think is perpetually on the horizon.
Joseph DeSimone, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill and cofounder of Carbon3D, a company that just emerged from stealth mode, announced a complete rethink of 3-D printing technology on the TED2015 stage. His technology, called Continuous Liquid Interface Production technology (CLIP), uses light and oxygen to grow objects from a pool of resin, no 2-D layering necessary.
The kicker: CLIP prints out objects 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3-D printers. At TED, DeSimone printed out a small soccer ball-like lattice structure in 6.5 minutes. Using today’s technology, a similar object would take between three and 12 hours to be printed.
DeSimone’s technology was inspired by the scene in Terminator 2 when a shapeshifting robot called T1000 emerges from a puddle of liquid. “The genesis is having a couple chemistry folks looking at a process dominated by mechanical engineering,” says DeSimone.
Objects printed with CLIP emerge from a shallow puddle held in a reservoir within the printer. The printer contains a special window at the bottom of the reservoir featuring properties that allow light and oxygen to pass through simultaneously.
“We were thinking about how could we craft an object and have it arise out of a puddle. That meant that we needed to maintain a puddle while we solidified the object at the same time,” says DeSimone. “We chose to use light and oxygen to accomplish this. Light converts liquid resin to a solid, and oxygen inhibits that.” By strategically using light and oxygen together, CLIP can create an object while maintaining the liquid puddle as the object grows.
Because the physics of the CLIP process is different from current technology–and because it’s just so fast–a CLIP 3-D printer can work with all sorts of polymers that other printers can’t use.
The printer could, for example, print rubbery materials–elastomers–that could be used for everything from shoes and athletic equipment to gaskets used in vehicles. It might also be used to make ultra-strong, lightweight products, like airplane seat materials that are 30% lighter than what’s available today.
CLIP could also be used to print out parts for microelectromechanical systems and sensors, like lab-on-a-chip technologies and accelerometers used in smartwatches. “When we pull object out of a puddle, it opens up the microfabrication world,” says DeSimone. One day, the printer could work with materials besides polymers, too.
Carbon3D hasn’t announced the release of a printer product yet (that will happen within a year), but it plans to focus on commercial applications first.
CLIP is ideal for commercial designs that are too complicated for injection molding but need to be produced at manufacturing speeds, says DeSimone. Already, the technology is being tested with companies in the automotive and athletic apparel spaces. A design studio and academic research lab are also testing CLIP.
Eventually, DeSimone anticipates that CLIP printers could work 1,000 times faster than traditional printers. “We open up this world that no other 3-D printing can access,” he says.