This Is A 3D Ink Jet Printer

We spend a lot of time thinking of how to create 3D objects, but what about being able to print full color graphics on the objects we create? This isn’t just multicolor, this is full-color! Here’s one elegant solution that uses ink jets to print full color images on 3D terrain models.

Admittedly we are very late to the party on this one as the technology was spotted on season 22, episode 7 of How It’s Made that aired way back in 2013. The segment shows terrain models — think of the physical contour map under glass that you might see at a National Park or at the main lodge of a ski resort. It’s easy enough to envision how the elevation is carved out of foam by a CNC. But the application of color printing to those surfaces is what caught our eye this time around. It’s a custom rig that a company called Solid Terrain Modeling built for this purpose. Since the height at any point on the work material is already known from the milling process, four ink heads (black, cyan, magenta, yellow) have been added to individual Z-axis actuators, applying a raster image as they traverse the surface.

Part of what makes this work is the post-processing steps that follow milling. The model is very carefully cleared of debris before being sprayed with primer. Another coat of an undetermined material (“a specialty coating to receive the ink”) gets the piece ready for the ink. The final step after printing is a protective clear coat. In the How It’s Made episode, buildings and other structures are then 3D-printed and added.

It seems like the trick is to get the heads to have as small of a footprint as possible for clearance when printing in sloped areas. We’re not experts in all the available consumer ink-jet printers out there, but finding a setup where the heads are separated from the reservoirs would be key. Watching this segment made us so excited to think of the person/people who got to hack this rig together as part of their job.

Looking for other ways to abuse ink jet parts? [Sprite_TM] came up with a way to make them handheld so you print on anything from latte foam to your buddy’s forearm. There’s no better name for that than the Magic Paintbrush.

15 thoughts on “This Is A 3D Ink Jet Printer

      1. “a specialty coating to receive the ink”
        Sounds like gesso or similar.

        Pretty awesome process. Also notice the ink heads shoot from a substantial distance compared to regular consumer printers.

  1. What odd timing! After seeing ads for what appear to be 3D topo+quaternary maps, and then finding out they are just 2D with fake shadows, I started researching how to extract 3D topo data and turn it into something I could print. I was going to airbrush some rough approximation of the soil types. So, if this post could go ahead and inspire someone to come up with a DIY conversion of an ink jet head, and post up instructions in the next couple weeks, that would be great.

  2. It’s kind of surprising that in the milling step they don’t just have a dust collector hose taped to the side of the milling head — would make cleanup a lot easier if most of the dust is captured at the source rather than sprayed across the whole room!

  3. This seems familiar…
    Oh, wasn’t there an outfit called ZebzaBrush or something that used inkjet cartridges to solidify Plaster of Paris to make full color models?
    The models were exceedingly delicate and needed to be sealed with resin, but the color was true and fully integrated into the material.
    Not a surface coating, the ink ‘activates’ the Plaster to harden and colors it as the same time.
    Red ink?
    Red Plaster.

    BTW, what about using dye-sublimation to deposit color on FDM filament?
    Dye capsules, tiny heaters in a small chamber would ‘paint’ the filament with richly saturated colors on demand.
    Works for paper, why not filament?

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