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Through the Looking Glass

3D printing has been all the rage lately since the reduction in cost has made it accessible to so many. But here’s a new twist and it’s pretty cool: volumetric printing.

Bringing designs to life in three dimensions has been accomplished in many ways. The recent revolution has been in 3D printing, where an object is created by a variety of ways, the most common of which consists of “printing” heated plastic one layer at a time from the bottom, up. It has been a breakthrough for rapid prototyping of everything from jewelry to toys to machine parts and even weapons.

An object being "printed" layer by layer (Credit: Subhashish Panigrahi/Wikipedia)

An object being “printed” in 3D, layer by layer (Credit: Subhashish Panigrahi/Wikipedia)

However, 3D printing doesn’t easily allow you to see all aspects of the object being made. What if you want to be able to see the inner structure of a complex object from any angle? Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), x-ray computed tomography (a.k.a., CT scan), and ultrasound imaging or ultrasonography were some ways to accomplish such examination via film slices or a computer-generated virtual environment.

3D visualization of skull structure (Credit: Zgyorfi)

3D visualization of skull structure (Credit: Zgyorfi/Wikipedia)

Now, the folks at Looking Glass in Brooklyn, New York bring to the world volumetric printing. Instead of directly constructing the object, volumetric printing can be likened to making multi-layered finger Jell-O. Very thin sheets of clear Lucite are made and the object being modeled is printed onto each sheet with ink.

Volumetric frog model (Credit: Looking Glass)

Volumetric frog model (Credit: Looking Glass)

When all the individual sheets are stacked together and bonded with an adhesive that matches the properties of the Lucite material, the resulting block looks like it has a three-dimensional object frozen inside it. Not only that, but since the ink is translucent, you can see the insides as well as the outside. See how it works at LookingGlassFactory.com.

Many thin sheets combine to form a 3D object (Credit: Looking Glass)

Many thin sheets combine to form a 3D object (Credit: Looking Glass)

You may be thinking that you’ve seen this years ago, just not in color. Actually, what you may be recalling is what’s called a bubblegram or vitrography. It is also a clear block, but the shapes inside are composed from hundreds or thousands of tiny points created by a high-powered laser. Volumetric printing is significantly more life-like and finely detailed.

A glass bubblegram of a caffeine molecule (Credit: E. Goodman/Wikipedia)

A glass bubblegram of a caffeine molecule (Credit: E. Goodman/Wikipedia)

The applications of volumetric printing for educational purposes, especially in biology, are pretty obvious. Makers of keepsakes and souvenirs are sure to be early adopters as well. However, I’m sure that there will be some really amazing ways to use this technology that haven’t yet been thought of. Meanwhile, you can see what Looking Glass is up to at their Kickstarter project and get yourself a frog, skull, mushroom or one of the other curiosities that they will be producing.

What if volumetric printing was combined with laser cutting? After each layer receives its ink, cut away the surrounding material. Upon assembling all such layers, you’d have a 3D object free of the block that currently encases it. I don’t know how you’d keep all the layers aligned, but it sounds like a worthy project to explore.

What would you use volumetric printing for?

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