In an iconic scene in the movie “Terminator 2,” the robotic villain T-1000 rises fully formed from a puddle of metallic goo. The newest innovation in 3-D printing looks pretty similar, and that’s no mistake: Its creators were inspired by that very scene.
The company Carbon3D came out of two years of stealth mode this month with a TED talk and the simultaneous publication of a paper in Science. Carbon3D’s new technology, which its creators say could be used in industrial applications in the next year, makes coveted 3-D printers the likes of those sold by MakerBot look like child’s play.
“We think that popular 3-D printing is actually misnamed – it’s really just 2-D printing over and over again,” said Joseph DeSimone, a professor of chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill and one of Carbon3D’s co-founders. “The strides in that area have mostly been driven by mechanical engineers figuring our how to make things layer by layer to precisely create an object. We’re two chemists and a physicist, so we came in with a different perspective.”
Just as T-1000 emerges from its puddle of metal alloys, objects created by the new printer seem to ooze into existence from the ether. They come out fast, too: 25 to 100 times as fast as anything on the market now, according to the study published in Science.
DeSimone and his colleagues call their new process “continuous liquid interface production technology,” or CLIP.
CLIP places a pool of resin over a digital light-projection system. A window between the resin and light allows light and oxygen to travel through (much like a contact lens, DeSimone explained).
To create an object, CLIP projects specific bursts of light and oxygen. Light hardens the resin, and oxygen keeps it from hardening. By controlling light and oxygen exposure in tandem, CLIP can make intricate shapes and latices in one piece instead of the many layers of material that usually make up a 3-D-printed object.
Those layers are defects, keeping the object from being a smooth surface. To minimize them, designers have to spend even longer printing out the objects.
“These hurdles mean that 3-D printing can be amazing for making prototypes but just not as good for creating a commercial product in a lot of applications,” said Rob Schoeben, Carbon3D’s chief marketing officer. “That’s what we’re most interested in changing.”
DeSimone hopes that the technique’s knack for making small, smooth objects will help produce breakthroughs in the tiny sensors needed for smartphones and fitness bands, as well as in microneedles and other drug-delivery systems.
DeSimone has always tried to turn his students into entrepreneurs in the lab, but Carbon3D is the first company he left the classroom to develop.
Co-founder Edward Samulski, a fellow UNC professor, said the basic principle – keeping a polymer from forming with oxygen – is something they frequently encountered in the classroom.
“We all teach this in our undergraduate courses,” Samulski said. “It illustrates what 1937 Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi said: ‘Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.’ ”