Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) have pioneered a new volumetric 3D printing method that enables the production of small, soft objects in mere seconds. The high-precision 3D printing approach could have important applications in the medical and bioprinting fields, by enabling the rapid production of hearing aids, cellular scaffolds and more.
Developed by the university’s Laboratory of Applied Photonics Devices (LAPD), the volumetric 3D printing method was inspired in part by tomography, a medical imaging process that uses surface scans to build a model of an object. Drawing from this technique, the research team built a system in which a liquid material—either a bio-gel or liquid plastic—is polymerized by a laser light pattern exposed from multiple angles.
“It’s all about the light,” said Paul Delrot, CTO of Readily3D, a spin-off company from EPFL. “The laser hardens the liquid through a process of polymerization. Depending on what we’re building, we use algorithms to calculate exactly where we need to aim the beams, from what angles, and at what dose.”
At this stage, the process is capable of producing structures that measure up to 2 cm with a precision of 80 micrometers. Printing an object of this scale reportedly takes less than 30 seconds. As the researchers continue to develop the process, they aim to create larger-scale printers with the capacity to print structures up to 15 cm in size.
The patent-pending volumetric technique pioneered by the EPFL team is already on its journey to commercialization, through spin-off company Readily3D, which will continue to develop and eventually market the system.
“Conventional 3D printing techniques, known as additive manufacturing, build parts layer by layer,” said Damien Loterie, CEO of Readily3D. “The problem is that soft objects made that way quickly fall apart.”
Thanks to its speed and method, this new technique could overcome these challenges. In the bioprinting field, it could be used to produce delicate cell-laden scaffolds for creating tissues or organs. In fact, the researchers are already working with a surgeon to develop and test arteries 3D printed using its technology. According to Loterie, the results are already showing promise.
Because the process is compatible with liquid polymers as well as hydrogels, it could also be used to produce customized hearing aids and mouth-guards. According to Christophe Moser, Head of the LAPD, the technology’s ability to rapidly print silicone or acrylic parts that do not require finishing could also be interesting for the design and interior design markets.
A study detailing the technology was published in the journal Nature Communications.