New method to 3D print entire objects simultaneously, without layering

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Life imitates science fiction: Engineers at Lawrence Livermore Lab have developed a new 3D method that creates entire objects in one piece instead of building them up with layering.

Developed by LLNL in collaboration with UC Berkeley, the University of Rochester, and MIT, volumetric printing replaces layering with a process that creates the entire object simultaneously. It does this by using three overlapping lasers beamed in a hologram-like pattern into a transparent tank filled with photosetting plastic resin. A short exposure by a single beam isn’t enough to cure the resin in a short time, but combining three lasers can induce curing in about ten seconds. After the object is formed, the excess resin is then drained off to reveal the complete unit.

“The fact that you can do fully 3D parts all in one step really does overcome an important problem in additive manufacturing,” says LLNL researcher Maxim Shusteff. “We’re trying to print a 3D shape all at the same time. The real aim of this paper was to ask, ‘Can we make arbitrary 3D shapes all at once, instead of putting the parts together gradually layer by layer?’ It turns out we can.”

Volumetric printing is not only faster, but eliminates the need for temporary support structures, is more flexible, and provides more geometric flexibility. So far, it’s been used to create squares, beams, planes, struts at arbitrary angles, lattices, and complex, curved objects.

The process still has problems, as the article describes. Nonetheless, this is just one more step in the invention process that is making a Star Trek replicator possible.

Hat tip reader Mike Buford.



  • ken anthony

    This is huge. The silver bullet fanboys will be much harder to calm since this still doesn’t remove the benefits of traditional manufacturing from the mix, but it’s definitely a great development.

  • Tom Billings

    This has elements of the 2-photon process used in the Greer Group at Caltech,

    to build “Architectured Nanomaterials”, that start with truss components smaller than the inherent defect sizes of the materials they use, and build macroscopic artifacts. The result there is fantastic mass/strength ratios, and materials like sapphire being used to make trusses, that compress as much as 50% (under huge pressure), while still springing back to their original shape.

    So, I wonder if this holographic process can help with architectured nanomaterials, by speeding up the production process to macro-sized components. A holographic laser process for defining CVD deposition of the materials in CC asteroids would also make things more profitable. The more options space manufacturing has, the easier it will be to make it profitable.

  • Mark

    At the end of the day it’s still just plastic. Transparent/translucent plastic, thus brittle plastic.

  • Localfluff

    Yes, Mark, just plastics. But plastics are long carbon chains and maybe with a proper mixture with other elements in some future they can be very locally formed to whatever organic macro molecule by laser induced energy concentration.

  • ken anthony

    Mark, instead of thinking of this as just a brittle plastic, think of this as part of the production method of an injection mold. It could result in 10 second turnaround instead of 10 hours. Once you have the mold, at that point, it just becomes a traditional process. Getting the mold right is an iterative process where quick turn around is extremely important.

  • Edward

    This technology has been in use for a quarter century or so. The difference is that rather than build up in layers (I have a sample from one company: a chess rook with a window, door, battlement opening and spiral stairs up to the battlement, but it is a little bit pixelated). As with this (LLNL, UCB, U of Rochester, and MIT) process, laser light “crosses the streams” (per Ghost Busters) and the liquid solidifies. Where the laser light does not cross, there is not enough light to solidify the resin.

    Here, rather than do it one layer at a time, they are doing the whole piece at one time.

    ken anthony is correct. Back then, the selling point on this technology was for rapid development. A test sample, such as a water bottle design, could be created in a short time, without the need to spend a lot of money on molds and other tooling. There was no longer a need to spend a lot of time and money on unique tooling for a test item that was going to show where it needed modification.

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