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Next-gen 3D printing using mobile phone screens to bring down costs

Photocentric founder Paul Holt with one of the company's 3D printers.

Manufacturer taking inspiration from the devices in our pockets to develop the future of 3D printing.

3D printing is used across various industries, from small-scale prototyping to larger-scale manufacture – but according to Photocentric, its cost is still too high.

The specialist chemical manufacturer is working to transform 3D printing by taking inspiration from devices we use every day such as mobile phones, tablets and televisions.

How 3D printing works

3D printing is a process through which three-dimensional objects are created under the control of a computer. Currently, the material used in the making of the object is ‘cured’ and hardened using either a laser or digital light projector.

Although this process works, Photocentric’s methods are designed to reduce the cost of 3D printing to enable wider application.

It has done this by designing a range of 3D printers – first introduced in 2016 – that use LCD screens to cure the resin used in 3D printers at a higher resolution, and at a much lower cost.

Photocentric founder Paul Holt said:

Today it seems obvious that the highest resolution, largest format and lowest cost digital light source available is the visual display screen we all use in our pockets or on our walls.

But it can only work in 3D printing because our photopolymers can harden in light within the visible spectrum.

Photocentric research scientist Sarah Karmel
Photocentric research scientist Sarah Karmel.

From researcher to manufacturer

Since 2002, Photocentric’s research into photopolymers has been supported by Innovate UK grants and private industry.

The company’s research initially revolved around its idea to package light-sensitive liquids in sachets to make stamps for office and craft applications. Photocentric then created the small-scale equipment to process these packs to create the stamps. This innovation won a Queen’s award in 2016, and another in 2018 for outstanding growth in overseas sales.

By then, Photocentric was already focusing on 3D printing driven by illumination from LCD screens, predominantly in the visible part of the spectrum, which is necessary when using visual display screens.

Paul believes this will open up the future of industrial 3D printing:

We are now doing research into all formats of 3D printers with LCD screens from the nano – using tiny screens from near-eye virtual reality headsets – through to mobiles, tablets, right up to the largest TV screens.

In fact, we just won a grant to manufacture what will be the largest 3D printer in the world, based on a 98-inch HDTV screen.

Our goal is to change world manufacturing, not just 3D printing, by making 3D printing low cost, large scale and functional.

Next steps: metal

Next for Photocentric is moving towards 3D printing metal, which could have a dramatic impact on the approach to manufacturing materials.

Paul continued:

This time we are using light and a binder to fix the shape of a metal rich formulation using light from LCD screens.

The object will then be slowly heated to remove the binder and sinter (fuse together) the metal. This technology can then be applied to all small-volume manufacturing of metal parts.

Company expansion

By the end of the year, Photocentric will have sales of over £7 million in the UK, where it employs 90 people. Its US subsidiary, which employs a further 35, is on course for sales of a further £3 million.

Paul said:

Our aim is to hit £100 million in 5 years and be the largest manufacturer of photopolymer for 3D printing in the world.

Photocentric received funding through Innovate UK’s open funding programme. Search and apply for opportunities through the open programme.

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