3D printers working in the millimeter range and larger are increasingly used in industrial production processes. Many applications, however, require precise printing on the micrometer scale at a far higher speed. Researchers have developed a system to print highly precise, centimeter-sized objects with sub-micrometer details at unmatched speed.
To demonstrate not only the speed but also the reliability of the setup, the researchers printed a lattice structure of 60 cubic millimeters in size with details down to the micrometer scale. It contains more than 300 billion voxels (a voxel is the 3D counterpart of a pixel or 2D picture element).
For this type of 3D printing, the beam of a laser passes a liquid photoresist in a computer-controlled manner. The material located in the focus of the laser only is exposed and hardened. The focal points correspond to the nozzles of an inkjet printer — the only difference being that they work three-dimensionally. In this way, highly precise filigree structures can be produced for various applications such as optics and photonics, material sciences, bioengineering, or safety engineering.
Typically, several hundred thousand voxels per second have been produced with a single laser light spot. This means that it was nearly a hundred times slower than graphical inkjet printers, which impeded many applications to date. Using special optics, the laser beam is divided into nine partial beams that each focus on a focal point. All nine partial beams can be used in parallel and, thanks to improved electronic control, they can be moved precisely much more rapidly than ever. This and some other technical improvements enabled the team to reach 3D printing speeds of about 10 million voxels per second, which corresponds to the speed reached by graphical 2D inkjet printers.
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