Home » Edinburgh scientists develop 3D printing technique that could ‘revolutionise’ industry

Edinburgh scientists develop 3D printing technique that could ‘revolutionise’ industry

by Liam Turner
Dr Jose Marques-Hueso and Dr Adilet Zhakeyev from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh

Scientists at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have developed an advanced technique for 3D printing that they say will “revolutionise” the manufacturing industry.

The group – led by Dr Jose Marques-Hueso from the Institute of Sensors, Signals, and Systems – have created a new method of 3D printing that uses near-infrared (NIR) light to create complex structures containing multiple materials and colours.

They achieved this by modifying an established 3D printing process known as stereolithography to “push the boundaries” of multi-material integration.

A conventional 3D printer would normally apply a blue or UV laser to a liquid resin that is then selectively solidified, layer by layer, to build a desired object.

But a major drawback of this approach has been the limitations in intermixing materials.

This new approach, however, uses a NIR light source capable of printing at far greater depths into the resin vat – and without the need to print in layers.

The findings hold “tremendous opportunities” for industry, according to the team, particularly those that rely on specialist parts such as in health and electrical sectors.

Dr Marques-Hueso said: “The novelty of our new method, which has never been done before, is to use the NIR invisibility windows of materials to print at a depth of over five centimetres, whereas the conventional technology has a depth limit of around 0.1 mm.

“This means that you can print with one material and later add a second material, solidifying it at any position of the 3D space, and not only on top of the outer surfaces.

“For example, we can print a hollow cube that is mostly sealed on all sides.

“We can then come back later and print an object, made from an entirely different material, inside this box, because the NIR laser will penetrate through the previous material as if it were invisible, because in fact it is completely transparent at the NIR.”

Dr. Adilet Zhakeyev, a PhD researcher at Heriot-Watt University, who has worked on the project for nearly three years, added: “Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology was already able to intermix materials, but FDM has a low resolution, where the layers are visible, while light-based technologies, such as stereolithography, can provide smooth samples with resolutions under five micrometres.”

The technique opens up a world of new possibilities, according to the researchers, such as 3D printing objects inside cavities, restoration of broken objects, and even in-situ bioprinting through skin.

Dr Marques-Hueso said: “In the same research project, we had previously developed a resin that can be selectively copper-plated.

“Combining both technologies, we can now 3D print with two different resins and selectively cover just one of them in copper by using a simple plating solution bath.

“This way, we can create integrated circuitry in 3D, which is very useful for the electronics industry.”

The cost

The costs are “surprisingly” low, according to the researchers.

Dr Marques-Hueso said: “A clear advantage of this technique is that the full machine can be built for less than £400.

“Some other advanced technologies that use lasers, such as Two-Photon Polymerisation (2PP), require expensive ultrafast lasers in the order of tens of thousands of pounds, but this is not our case because our specialist materials allow the use of inexpensive lasers.” 

He added: “Now that we have results to support our claims, we hope to partner with businesses and develop this technology further.”

The project, entitled ‘Multimaterial Stereolithography by Crosslinking through Luminescence Excitation’, has received £280,000 of funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Image: (L-R) Dr Jose Marques-Hueso and Dr Adilet Zhakeyev from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. Credit: Heriot Watt University

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