3D laser printer creates complex objects from multiple materials

23 February 2016
By Jack Loughran
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A lattice structure made by the printer is held by one of the developers

A lattice structure made by the printer is held by one of the researchers

A 3D printer that uses lasers in order to create more complex objects than traditional devices from a range of different materials has been developed by a team at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

The printer uses a modified, commercial-grade CO2 laser cutter to create OpenSLS, an open-source, selective laser sintering platform that can print intricate 3D objects from powdered plastics and biomaterials.

The system costs at least 40 times less than its commercial counterparts and allows researchers to work with their own specialized powdered materials.

Traditional 3D printers squeeze melted plastic through a needle as they trace out two-dimensional patterns. Three-dimensional objects are then built up from successive 2D layers.

One of the limitations of this method is that it cannot create structures with overhangs because it needs to layer the plastic onto an underlying structure.

However, the OpenSLS system works differently, the laser shines down onto a flat bed of plastic powder and wherever the laser touches powder, it melts it to form a small volume of solid material.

By tracing the laser in two dimensions, the printer can fabricate a single layer of the final part.

Where commercial SLS machines generally don't allow users to fabricate objects with their own powdered materials, the new machine is capable of this which is of great value to researchers who want to experiment with biomaterials for regenerative medicine and other biomedical applications.

"Designing our own laser-sintering machine means there's no company-mandated limit to the types of biomaterials we can experiment with for regenerative medicine research," said Ian Kinstlinger, study co-author.

The team showed that the machine could print a series of intricate objects from both nylon powder, which is a commonly used material for high-resolution 3D sintering, and from polycaprolactone, which is used to make templates for studies on engineered bone.

"SLS technology has been around for more than 20 years and it's one of the only technologies for 3D printing that has the ability to form objects with dramatic overhangs and bifurcations," said study co-author Jordan Miller.

"SLS technology is perfect for creating some of the complex shapes we use in our work, like the vascular networks of the liver and other organs."

A 3D printer that can print human flesh in order to replace injured or diseased tissue was recently demonstrated by scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina.

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