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USC Viterbi engineers develop faster 3-D printing process

Computer model of a pair of tweezers to be printed in 3-D (Photo/courtesy of USC Viterbi)

USC Viterbi School of Engineering researchers have developed a faster 3-D printing process and are now using it to model and fabricate heterogeneous objects, which comprise multiple materials.

Although 3-D printing — or direct digital manufacturing — has the potential to revolutionize various industries by providing faster, cheaper and more accurate manufacturing options, fabrication time and the complexity of multimaterial objects have been a longtime hurdle to its widespread use in the marketplace.

With this newly developed printing process, USC Viterbi Professor Yong Chen and his team have shaved the fabrication time down to minutes, bringing the manufacturing world one step closer to achieving its goal.

“Digital material design and fabrication enables controlled material distributions of multiple base materials in a product component for significantly improved design performance,” said Chen, professor in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the study’s lead researcher. “Such fabrication capability opens up exciting new options that were previously impossible.”

Traditional modeling and prototyping approaches used to take days, but over the past several decades various additive manufacturing (AM) processes have been developed to fabricate both homogeneous and heterogeneous objects more quickly. Currently, AM processes such as multijet modeling, which create a solid 3-D object from a digital model by laying down successive layers of material, can fabricate a complex object in a matter of hours.

Last year, Chen and another team of USC Viterbi researchers improved an AM-related process called mask-image-projection-based stereolithography (MIP-SL) to drastically speed up the fabrication of homogeneous 3-D objects.

In the MIP-SL process, a 3-D digital model of an object is sliced by a set of horizontal planes, and each slice is converted into a two-dimensional mask image. The mask image is then projected onto a photocurable liquid resin surface and light is projected onto the resin to cure it in the shape of the related layer.

The USC Viterbi team also developed a two-way movement design for bottom-up projection so the resin could be quickly spread into uniform thin layers. As a result, production time was cut from hours to a few minutes. In its latest paper, the team successfully applies this more efficient process to the fabrication of heterogeneous objects that comprise different materials that cure at different rates. This new 3-D printing process will allow heterogeneous prototypes and objects such as dental and robotics models to be fabricated more cost- and time-efficiently than ever before.

In their future efforts, Chen and his team will investigate how to develop an automatic design approach for heterogeneous material distribution according to user-specified physical properties and how to improve the fabrication speed.

Chen and USC Viterbi industrial and systems engineering doctoral candidate students Pu Huang and Dongping Deng will present their findings at the International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in San Diego on Nov. 20.

The study was partially supported by the National Science Foundation (grant numbers CMMI-1151191 and CMMI-0927397).

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USC Viterbi engineers develop faster 3-D printing process

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