Creating Full Color Images on Thermoformed Parts

In a race to produce the cheapest and most efficient full-color 3D object, we think Disney’s Research facility (ETH Zurich and the Interactive Geometry Lab) may have found the key. Combining hydrographic printing techniques with plastic thermoforming.

You might remember our article last year on creating photorealistic images on 3D objects using a technique called hydrographic printing, where essentially you print a flattened 3D image using a regular printer on special paper to transfer it to a 3D object in a bath of water. This is basically the same, but instead of using the hydrographic printing technique, they’ve combined the flattened image transfer with thermoforming — which seems like an obvious solution!

As you can see in the following video it is possible to create very intricate details on 3D objects using this technique. But another useful tidbit in the video is the way they removed a 3D printed PLA mold from a cast object — using a hot air gun!

[Thanks Mario!]

21 thoughts on “Creating Full Color Images on Thermoformed Parts

    1. Yea, I was going to say the same thing, when you see it done you think “It’s so SIMPLE, why didn’t I think of that!?” But obviously none of us did, nice one. And since I’ve seen so many hacks for easy DIY vacuforming I can see this technique taking off in the hacker community, at least I hope!

      1. That’s because it is! Once they had the software to deform the image it was only a matter of time before somebody made the connection to vacuum formed parts with pre-printed plastic. Myst be hard to line it up exactly though.

  1. actually, it is used on plastic bottles containing salad dressing here in The Netherlands, but not directly to articulate the 3d form, but to compensate it.

  2. I like how they point out how it works with intricate details, only to show a comparison where it doesn’t :P (the texture of that mask is misplaced in a bunch of spots) Not saying i could do better ofc, just saying, this tech is cool, but it remains to be seen how practical this is, because of the fact that you apply the texture ‘from one side’ rather then all around as the object is being produced.

    1. They needed to drill some tiny holes down through the low spots, and carve channels in the bottom of the plaster form to connect them. Then the vacuum would pull the plastic down better.

  3. The innovation here is the algo to take a 3d object texture and convert it to 2d image so when it is attached to the 3d object it will map exactly like the texture mapped to the object – right?

    Isn’t it really similar to texture mapping done in 3g engines? but just in reverse?

    1. This is already done for a number of years by low cost shrink films (typically tubes) that go over bottles but are printed on and then shrunk. It is printed to compensate for uneven shrinkage, so it appears (mostly) as intended when shrunk.

      This is sort of a 2D version of that.

  4. So weird… I was thinking about almost exactly the same thing just this morning, as a means of making 3D shapes using laser-etched acrylic. But if there’s much height at all to the mold, it seems to me that the plastic is going to stretch unpredictably and cause misalignment of the image and the mold. Might be okay for something like the tree trunk demo’d here, but I’m not sure it would work for projects that require more precision.

  5. I remember having some cheap metal toys (cars & tops) in the early 1960s that came from Japan. These were apparently made by cutting the ends off of used beer cans, printing on the inside surface, then using dies to form it into the toy’s shape. The graphics were made so that they produced straight lines (and what-not) on the curved surfaces of the toy. If you took these apart, you could see the original beer labeling on the inside.

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