Take a look at the picture above, or check it out in the gallery below. A lovely piece of fine leather upholstery, surely a component from the inside of a very nice car, right? Actually, it's a printed sheet that came out of what Casio is calling a 2.5D printer, a technology the company has dubbed Mofrel.
It's called a 2.5D printer because the maximum depth it can create is only 1.7 millimeters, far short of a proper 3D printer, but that doesn't make this technology any less amazing. It's a multi-step process that starts with special sheets of material a few millimeters thick, each sheet made of layers of PVC and PET plastics. The printer applies a gray scale pattern onto the sheets, with the darker portions defining taller areas.
Heat is then applied to the sheet, localized to the darker areas. The core of the sheet reacts to the heat and expands, creating the desired depth and texture. A thin membrane is peeled off, removing the black coloring, leaving a white sheet that can receive color via an inkjet process, with 16 million possible colors to choose from. Printing is single- or double-sided if so desired -- I was given a finished sheet that looks all the world like red leather on one side and bears a beautiful, brightly-colored pattern on the reverse.
It's a little hard to explain just how magical the resulting sheets look and feel. That plush, tacky feeling of full-grain leather isn't quite right, but I've sampled many far less compelling pleather surfaces in my time, and that this comes out of a printer is remarkable. Even the stitching and tiny seams in the banding at the edge of the sheet in the piece pictured above all came out as one, unified piece. The stitches, too, are fake.
So what's the point? Well, for now at least, the primary application is rapid prototyping. These sheets, while impressive, don't have the durability and wearability of proper leather. A Casio rep indicated they'd wear out in about five years if subjected to regular use, which isn't enough for a production car. But, that's plenty for a concept car, and since designers can print out a full sheet of this stuff in five minutes, this could dramatically reduce production times on those on-stage delights that we drool over at every major auto show.
However, with the application of protective lacquers the sheets can be made more durable, and I was also shown floor and wall tiles. At 10,000 yen per sheet (about $9 at current exchange rates) that would make for an expensive floor, but this technology is so very new that it's easy to see that price going way, way down eventually.
As for the price of the printer, that starts at 5,000,000 yen, or about $45,000. That again points to use only in high-end design studios for now, and while it'll likely be a while before you have one sitting in your home office, I can't wait to see what automotive designers start printing when Mofrel ships next year.