New Star Trek-like ‘Replicator’ Prints 3D Objects With Light

3D printing technology has been around for years, but it hasn’t taken off as many industry-watchers expected. One of the major issues is that 3D printing even small objects take a long time, and the objects you get at the end still require some cleaning up. Researchers from the University of California Berkeley have developed a technique that can create objects in a single step using light. They call it “The Replicator,” a reference to the essentially magical technology features throughout the Star Trek series and movies.

The Berkeley team took inspiration from computed tomography (CT) scans. A CT scanner captures 2D X-ray images of the patient, and then a computer reassembles those slices into a 3D model to give doctors a look inside the body. The replicator essentially runs that process in reverse.

It starts with a 3D model, and a computer program builds 2D slices out of that model. Those slices are composited into a video sequence that shows the object rotating. To get that virtual representation into the real world, you just need a little light at just the right wavelength.

The replicator uses a tube of synthetic resin to produce the object. In the test below, the team used a scale model of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” statue. A projector beams the computer-generated video onto the resin tube. The light solidifies the resin as the video plays. The video shows the model rotating, so the tube rotates at the same rate to ensure the “slices” end up in the right 3D shape. The result is a little Thinker formed from liquid resin in just a few minutes.

The researchers are excited about what this technology could make 3D printing more useful for rapid prototyping and the production of custom medical devices. Because the material is liquid and solidifies rapidly, you can even embed solid objects inside the resin. The objects also come out smooth, whereas regular additive 3D printing produces rough edges and need to be smoothed out.

The replicator is still a long way from replacing all current 3D printing. For one, it only works on centimeter-scale objects. Some shapes are also tougher to print in resin than others. It’s not going to make you some “tea, earl grey, hot” any time soon. Still, it could have real potential to shake up a sluggish industry.