May 14, 2015 | By Simon

Although we’ve seen a variety of additive manufacturing technology breakthroughs over the past few years ranging from fabrication speed increases and material developments to ways of lower the actual cost of 3D printers, one area of 3D printing that could use some improvement is the ability to create 3D printed objects with complicated patterns and a variety of colors at a low cost.  

While some of the more expensive industrial machines are capable of printing objects in multiple colors and materials - such as the Objet line of 3D printers from Stratasys - many of these options are out of reach for the average consumer.

However, thanks to recent developments in hydrographic printing, users may soon be able to accurately color standard 3D prints from any 3D printer.

Hydrographic printing, which is also known as water transfer printing, is a technique used to quickly add color and pattern template designs to a manufactured object.  The process begins with a thin sheet of transparent film (which features the intended design) that is placed onto the surface of a tub of water and chemicals.  Once the film is laid flat on the surface of the water, an object can be dunked into the film which will then wrap around the object and bond to an object’s surface.     


While the process has worked for decades for a variety of products it isn’t ideal for coloring or patterning objects that require precision placement; due to the unpredictability of the dunking process, it’s difficult to gauge where specific points of the film will end up on the final object.  For example, if a scaled Formula 1 car model was to be dipped in a film that featured details including sponsor logos and decals, there would be no way of ensuring that the details would end up where they were intended.  

Now, a group of researchers from both Columbia University and Zheijiang University in China have recently developed a solution for ensuring that users just might be able to better-gauge where the film ends up on their physical object by creating a simulation of the stretching that occurs during the transfer process and applying these changes into the film itself.   

“Hydrographic printing enables high-quality coloring of object surfaces and works with a wide range of materials, but suffers from the inability to accurately register color texture to complex surface geometries,” said the researchers in a recently-published report.

“Thus, it is hardly usable by ordinary users with customized shapes and textures.”

Using the new “computational hydrographic printing” developed by the researchers however, casual 3D printing users may soon be able to more accurately customize their designs using this unique color and patterning process.  

“We built a hydrographic printing system that is able to precisely control the object orientation and dipping location,” they add.  

“The entire system is built upon off-the-shelf hardware and can be easily set up by ordinary users.”

The process works by simulating the stretching that occurs during the immersion in software developed by the research team.  Once the physical structure and desired pattern have been simulated, a film transfer is created that has distorted the colors and pattern accordingly to match the stretching process.  The researchers even developed a way to convey surface textures - including the ability to illustrate Earth terrain in a globe model that they created.    

Among other applications, the research team believes that 3D printing enthusiasts will find a use for the technology to quickly and accurately add complex colors and patterns to otherwise-plain 3D printed objects.  For those familiar with unwrapping UVs from 3D models to create custom skins, this technology could be used to accurately create photo-real ‘physical skins’ using a similar method.  

The researchers are also exploring a “multi-immersion” system that will be capable of applying more three-dimensional paint jobs to objects over a series of immersions.  

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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Ken wrote at 2/1/2016 3:52:14 PM:

I have a question. Our business does decoration, mostly camouflage for the sporting industry. As you have clearly pointed out, it isn't possible to register utilizing the normal dipping processes. Would it be possible to use this technology in a manufacturing environment? I am very impressed with this!

allen at wrote at 9/15/2015 9:20:56 PM:

Great article! I'm involved with the development of the printing side of this process. I love it...

Mike Balzer, All Things 3D wrote at 5/15/2015 5:32:28 PM:

Again you guys knock it out of the park with your in-depth coverage. Simon, I plan to talk about your article on '3D in Review' today. Love to have you guys on one day.

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