Terminator-style 3D printing grows objects from a pool of liquid

Carbon3D shows off a fascinating liquid-resin process that bypasses the typical layering approach of 3D printing.

Carbon3D printing demo
Carbon3D could change the way 3D printing works. Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Let's talk about layers. Traditional 3D printing involves a machine stacking layers of material to create a 3D object. This takes time and leaves ripples showing where those layers were laid down. Now, imagine you could grow an object out of a pool of liquid, much like Robert Patrick emerging as the T-1000 from a puddle of liquid metal in "Terminator 2."

Startup Carbon3D stepped out of stealth mode this week to introduce a new way to 3D-print objects. The company's CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production) technology uses a photosensitive resin that reacts to UV light and oxygen. This results in smooth 3D objects that appear to magically emerge from a pool of liquid as a machine draws them upwards.

Here's a more technical description:

"At the heart of the CLIP process is a special window that is transparent to light and permeable to oxygen, much like a contact lens. By controlling the oxygen flux through the window, CLIP creates a "dead zone" in the resin pool just tens of microns thick (about 2-3 diameters of a red blood cell) where photopolymerization cannot occur. As a series of cross-sectional images of a 3D model is played like a movie into the resin pool from underneath, the physical object emerges continuously from just above the dead zone."

Oxygen prevents the resin from curing, while UV light causes it to cure. By controlling those two variables in an exacting way, an object can be created from liquid.

Going layerless could be a big step forward for 3D printing. "Existing 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, technology is really just 2D printing, over and over again," Carbon3D says. Objects made with the CLIP process turn out more like injection-molded objects with smooth exteriors. The technology can also be used to create objects from elastomers, which has applications ranging from car parts to athletic shoes.

The company has some lofty aspirations for its new technique, which it claims is 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing, offers a wider choice for materials and delivers commercial-quality products.

Carbon3D was founded in 2013, but has been working under the radar at developing the technology. It has already raised $40 million in funding from investors, which include Sequoia Capital, a firm known for backing Jawbone, Dropbox and Cisco.

"If 3D printing hopes to break out of the prototyping niche it has been trapped in for decades, we need to find a disruptive technology that attacks the problem from a fresh perspective and addresses 3D printing's fundamental weaknesses," said Jim Goetz, Carbon3D board member and Sequoia partner.

A fascinating video demo of the CLIP process in action shows a geometric ball emerging from a red primordial ooze. It will be interesting to follow Carbon3D as it works towards commercializing the technology. The future of 3D printing may look a lot more like a liquid than a solid.

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