There are still many limitations that keep 3D printing technology from reaching its full potential. These include build-size constraints, material restrictions, and the lack of multicolour printing capabilities.
But alternatives that address such shortcomings are regularly unveiled, to the delight of the industrial manufacturing world. “Computational thermoforming” is among the most promising.
This bit of innovation comes by way of a group of researchers from ETH Zurich and Disney Research Zurich. With this, it becomes possible to produce high-quality digital 3D prints in a wide array of colours without the need for a 3D printer. That’s thanks to the combination of funky new software and the established industrial practice of thermoforming.
Here’s how it works. A simple 3D printer is used to produce a negative mould of a model made of polylactic acid. Next, software computes the correct texture for the 3D model, which is printed with a standard laser printer onto special transfer paper that, with the application of pressure and heat, transfers the image onto a plastic sheet.
The printed plastic sheet is heated in a thermoforming machine until it becomes malleable. A vacuum sucks the air from between the sheet and a gypsum cast, setting the plastic tight on to the gypsum mould like a skin—creating the plastic replica.
Success is a function of having computed the deformed image so that the colours and patterns align perfectly with the mould’s geometric details.
The new manufacturing method will facilitate the quick and cheap production of individual pieces or small batches of objects with structurally complex and coloured surfaces.
Beyond hobby applications, researchers think computational thermoforming could be used in digital fabrication and industrial applications to mould prototypes before large-scale production. Architectural firms and modellers could also benefit from this method of cheaply and quickly fabricating 3D models from their plans and visualizations.