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3D Printing High Quality Optics with Blurred Light

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OTTAWA, Ontario, May 20, 2024 — Researchers from the National Research Council of Canada have developed a 3D printing method called blurred tomography that can rapidly produce microlenses with commercial-level optical quality. The method may make it quicker and easier to design and fabricate a variety of optical devices.

“We purposely added optical blurring to the beams of light used for this 3D printing method to manufacture precision optical components,” said Daniel Webber from the National Research Council of Canada. “This enables production of optically smooth surfaces.”

The researchers demonstrated the efficacy of the technique by using it to make a millimeter-sized plano-convex optical lens with an imaging performance comparable to a commercially available glass lens. The team also showed that the method can produce optical components that are ready to use in just 30 minutes.

“We anticipate this method to be valuable for cost-effective and swift prototyping of optical components due to the affordability of the tomographic 3D printer and the materials used,” said Webber. “Also, the inherent freeform nature of tomographic 3D printing could enable optical designers to simplify designs by replacing multiple standard optics with printed optics that have complex shapes.”
Researchers developed a new 3D printing method called blurred tomography that can rapidly produce microlenses with commercial-level optical quality. They used the technique to print a microlens array, shown being held by a set of tweezers. Courtesy of Daniel Webber/National Research Council of Canada.
Researchers developed a new 3D printing method called blurred tomography that can rapidly produce microlenses with commercial-level optical quality. They used the technique to print a microlens array, shown being held by a set of tweezers. Courtesy of Daniel Webber/National Research Council of Canada.

Tomographic volumetric additive manufacturing is a relatively new manufacturing approach that uses projected light to solidify a light-sensitive resin in specific areas. It allows an entire part to be printed at once without any support structures. However, existing tomographic methods cannot directly print imaging-quality lenses because the pencil-like beams used cause striations that lead to small ridges on the component’s surface. Although post-processing steps can be used to create smooth surfaces, these approaches add time and complexity, which takes away the rapid prototyping advantage associated with tomographic printing.


“Fabrication of optical components is costly due to the stringent technical specifications needed for a functioning lens, as well as the complex and time-consuming process of manufacturing,” said Webber. “Blurred tomography can be used to make freeform designs in a low-cost manner. As the technology matures, it could allow much quicker prototyping for new optical devices, which would be useful for anyone from commercial manufacturers to garage-based inventors.”

To test the new method, the researchers first created a simple plano-convex lens and showed that it had an imaging resolution comparable to a commercial glass lens with the same physical dimensions. It also exhibited a micron-scale form error, sub-nanometer surface roughness, and a point spread function close to the glass lens.

They also made a 3 × 3 array of microlenses using blurred tomography and compared it to an array printed with conventional tomographic 3D printing. They found that it was not possible to image a business card with the array printed with conventional means due to large surface roughness, but it could be done with the array printed with blurred tomography. Additionally, the researchers demonstrated overprinting of a ball lens onto an optical fiber, which was previously only possible using an additive manufacturing technique known as two-photon polymerization.

The team is now working to improve component accuracy by optimizing the light patterning method and by incorporating material parameters into the printing process. They also want to introduce automation of the printing time to make the system sufficiently robust for commercial use.

“Tomographic 3D printing is a rapidly maturing field that is finding use in many application areas,” said Webber. “Here, we leverage the intrinsic advantages of this 3D printing method to fabricate millimeter-sized optical components. In doing so, we have added to the repertoire of optical manufacturing techniques a rapid and low-cost alternative that could potentially have an impact in future technologies.”

The research was published in Optica (www.doi.org/10.1364/OPTICA.519278).

Published: May 2024
Glossary
3d printing
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), is a manufacturing process that builds three-dimensional objects layer by layer from a digital model. This technology allows the creation of complex and customized structures that would be challenging or impossible with traditional manufacturing methods. The process typically involves the following key steps: Digital design: A three-dimensional digital model of the object is created using computer-aided design (CAD) software. This...
additive manufacturing
Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, is a manufacturing process that involves creating three-dimensional objects by adding material layer by layer. This is in contrast to traditional manufacturing methods, which often involve subtracting or forming materials to achieve the desired shape. In additive manufacturing, a digital model of the object is created using computer-aided design (CAD) software, and this digital model is then sliced into thin cross-sectional layers. The...
tomography
Technique that defocuses activity from surrounding planes by means of the relative motions at the point of interest.
Research & Technology3d printingadditive manufacturingOpticslensesmanufacturingtomographyblurred tomographyblurred lightmicrolensesNational Research Council of CanadaAmericasoptica

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