Watch the hypnotic new way robots are painting 3D printed objects

While the futuristic world of 3D printing has developed in leaps and bounds over the past few years, painting printed objects has been held back by problems of how to colour intricate patterns both accurately and efficiently.

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The current standard is hydrographic printing, where you print out a pattern on a thin sheet of film, put it on the surface of some water, add some chemicals then dunk your printed design. The film wraps itself around the object and, presto, you have a coloured surface.

The main problem with this is that the method isn’t accurate enough to perfectly align a colour. This means you get nasty stretching effects on the surface when it’s wrapped around the object, which makes it hard to properly predict whether or not your patterns will line up.

Now, a team of researchers at Columbia and Zheijiang University have come up with a potential solution – adding more computers into the mix. Computational hydrographic printing’ is a lot like standard hydrographic printing except a 3D vision system (think Microsoft Kinect) it used to create a precise texture map. This texture map accurately predicts the stretching before it happens and comes up with a film design to counteract the distortion. What might look like a cat-drowning robot is actually a highly precise way to paint 3D objects.

As well as single-dip patterns, the researchers have developed a ‘multi-immersion’ technique for three-dimensional designs. Whether or not computational hydrographic printing really takes off remains to be seen, but there’s a definite pleasure to be had from watching a machine dip an object into a tub of water like a mechanical witchfinder general.

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