Seeing the Light in 3D Manufacturing

January 21, 2016

One of the great virtues of technology is the democratization of creative power. In fields such as photography, film, entertainment, publishing, graphics and social activism, virtually anyone with access to a computer can translate ideas into reality and find an audience. This democratization has led to the ability for people everywhere to share, join and build on diverse ideas, generating an explosion of global creativity unmatched since the Renaissance, and giving a voice to artists, aspiring artists and ordinary citizens the world over.

by Joe DeSimone

One of the great virtues of technology is the democratization of creative power. In fields such as photography, film, entertainment, publishing, graphics and social activism, virtually anyone with access to a computer can translate ideas into reality and find an audience. This democratization has led to the ability for people everywhere to share, join and build on diverse ideas, generating an explosion of global creativity unmatched since the Renaissance, and giving a voice to artists, aspiring artists and ordinary citizens the world over.

Now, this same democratization is beginning to transform manufacturing, as technology gains the capability for the localized production of three-dimensional objects on a specialized type of printer. Such parts can then be mass produced — or generated in more limited quantities if desired — and used to make cars, airplanes, consumer electronics, medical devices and other products. This process — commonly called 3D printing — promises to streamline the expensive and time-consuming traditional method of designing and testing a prototype for a new product, then finding a supplier who can make that product reliably and affordably. Instead, individual engineers — whether they’re in Timbuktu, Tahiti or Texas — will be able to design and produce such products in-house or through a service bureau for specific local uses with an unprecedented degree of flexibility, precision, creativity and control.

Or at least that’s what we’ve been expecting for two decades. Instead, as exciting as the technology is, 3D printing has thus far been constrained by slow speeds and a limited range of materials.

However, in a development that may sound as though it’s straight out of science fiction, a new process uses ultraviolet light to overcome these barriers. This new technology called CLIP — Continuous Liquid Interface Production — can produce functional parts from a wide range of tunable materials at game-changing speeds, opening new possibilities not just for 3D printing, but for 3D manufacturing. We “grow” parts continuously from a pool of liquid resin by carefully balancing the interaction of oxygen and ultraviolet light. As presented in a TED Talk and the research journal Science in 2015, the process can produce complex, commercial quality objects with the material properties needed across a range of industries. Possibilities include unique and mechanically strong materials that could be used in the automotive or aerospace industries, as well as great elastomers for use in areas like athletic apparel. This innovation will be the subject of my keynote address at the annual conference of The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) this month in Dallas.

3D manufacturing will enable a world of new applications in virtually every manufacturing industry, from automotive and aerospace, to electrical equipment, to consumer-product industries. The technology will finally realize its full potential as an essential manufacturing tool.

Another area of exceptional promise is medicine. The technology could be used to produce a host of medical devices on-demand and personalized for the individual patient, such as new forms of drug and vaccine delivery vehicles. Surgical implants — such as stents — could also be quickly produced to match the dimensions of a patient’s individual anatomy.

This new technology combines ideas from the fields of chemistry and physics to create a new manufacturing process. The applications are limitless and will influence a broad range of manufacturing industries in an increasingly connected world. By embracing the vast potential in 3D manufacturing and the wide array of people and communities it can positively affect, we can make manufacturing and production more democratic and egalitarian. The promise of this technology isn’t just empowering people with tools; it’s giving them the chance to make the tools they need themselves — an unprecedented shift that could be a significant step forward in providing more equality and opportunity for all.