In old Warner Bros. cartoons, one common gag is a single can of paint that contains an elaborate pattern, like plaid, which can be applied to a surface with a single brush stroke. It’s funny because it totally defies physics.
The closest thing we’ve had to this up until now is a technology called hydrographic printing, which would apply a patterened film layer to an object when you dunked it in a pool of water. But the problem, though, was that it wasn’t precise. How a piece of plastic film stretched across an object when it was dunked yielded inconsistent results. Until now, that is.
Thanks to a jaw-dropping new breakthrough in hydrographic printing, researchers have figured out how to precisely paint multi-colored patterns on an object just by dipping it into a pool of water.
A team comprised of researchers from Hangzhou’s Zheijiang University and NYC’s Columbia University to figure out a solution to the problem, which they call computational hydrographic printing. Essentially, what they do is 3-D scan whatever object they want to print on before they dunk it. Algorithms then take whatever pattern you want to paint on it, and print it on the layer of transparent film in such a way that, when lowered into the water bath by a robotic arm, the pattern will be applied perfectly, every time.
According to the researchers, this technique could be used to easily paint 3-D printed objects, or even more traditionally manufactured items, like a mug. And by dunking an object multiple times, you could even apply three-dimensional paint patterns to an object, making it look painted by hand.
Since this is still in the research stage, there’s no telling when, or if, this technology will truly change how we paint 3-D objects. But one thing’s for sure: watching a plastic tiger dipped into a swirling pool of green eyes, whiskers, and stripes, then rise up, fully painted, is how we wish all our toys were painted growing up.