A recent breakthrough in 3D printing has the potential to overcome significant limitations with the technology. Intriguingly, the technology takes its inspiration from a 19th-Century source: the pointillist painting technique of the French artist Georges Seurat.
3D printing has been celebrated as a manufacturing technology anticipated to disrupt a broad spectrum of industries, including automotive, aerospace, and building construction. Although advances have been made in recent years, 3D printing—or additive manufacturing as it is also called—continues to face substantial technological limitations. Speed remains the most significant hurdle. Small components can require hours to print, which may be tolerable when prototyping ideas or making bespoke artifacts but is not competitive with mass production. As a result, additive manufacturing has remained a niche process best suited for design iterations and high-cost, one-of-a-kind objects.
Conventional 3D printers involve continuous, layer-by-layer depositions of material. Each layer is effectively a thin cross-section of the final intended object. A variety of factors contribute to the duration required for the print: More complex geometries, larger scales, and more refined surface features necessitate more time. The thickness of each layer also contributes to the duration, with thinner thicknesses requiring more time due to an increased number of material passes. Depending on these factors, a small object can require 30 minutes to several days to manufacture, which doesn’t include any post-processing steps.
In a new approach, objects may be printed all at once. The connection to pointillism is how the laser used to sinter powdered material is distributed into many individual rays. Leading this breakthrough is the Wilmington, Mass.–based Seurat Technologies—named after the painter himself—which can create metal objects with a laser of 2.3 million pixels. Each pixel effectively welds metallic powders in adjacent layers together based on a highly detailed 3D map. According to the manufacturer, the technique makes it possible to manufacture “entire renderings at once in a single defined area.” This holistic capability is appropriately called “area printing.” In 2D printing, analogies to area printing are inkjet or laser capabilities, which can generate prints in a single pass. In contrast, typical 3D printers are more similar to the now-obsolete pen plotters (remember those?), or the process of drawing content manually, one line at a time.
Seurat Technologies’ co-founder James DeMuth developed the idea of area printing in 2009 as a researcher at the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He considered employing 3D printing to manufacture fusion chambers for a nuclear fusion energy project using special alloys. However, the sluggishness of the existing technology made it unworkable: DeMuth calculated it would require 200 years to fabricate a single chamber! He then considered how the characteristics of resolution and print rate could be decoupled to accelerate the additive manufacturing process. His eureka idea was to distribute the laser into a pattern resembling the virtual model. “What if every pixel could function as an individual laser?” he asked. “If possible, every pixel in the pattern would have the defining feature as its own independent beam—all with the optical simplicity of a single beamline.”
To make area printing possible, DeMuth took advantage of another LLNL technology—an Optically Addressed Light Valve , which enabled the projection of high-resolution images composed of laser pixels. By changing the system architecture using this method, area printing was born. In 2015, he founded Seurat Technologies with partner Erik Toomre, and today, the company claims it can manufacture metal objects 10 times faster than standard laser powder-bed fusion technology—and that this speed will increase by 100 times in three years. DeMuth also anticipates the price of its area-printed components to drop to by 2030, a claim supported by a peer-reviewed scientific paper that Demuth co-authored for Additive Manufacturing, "Physics of large-area pulsed laser powder bed fusion." .
Once Seurat Technologies’ pointillist printing becomes faster and cheaper than conventional metalworking processes, as expected (and generating products of equal or higher quality), the disruptive technology will be poised to transform industrial production as we know it. For example, in building construction, area printing is likely to shape ornamental metal components in the near term; in the long term, it might be possible to area-print buildings themselves by projecting a virtual model onto a site.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.