Additive manufacturing allows for the creation of novel, multifunctional lenses and components that have the potential to simplify and shrink traditional optical systems. Emerging 3D printing technology converts previously impossible optical component designs into optimized elements. It can improve medical instruments, research tools, communications systems, and consumer devices.
The additive process in 3D printing prints an entire optical component, one tiny particle at a time. It allows for designs that combine multiple functions in a single lens or pre-align a system by combining optics, mounts, and baffles. The new optical designs have the potential to reduce a product’s footprint, improve technical performance, and make commercial scale-up easier.
The ability to print an optic, its mount, and other components save time and reduces installation errors. Furthermore, the ability to fine-tune an optic’s shape and properties on a small scale allow one lens to replace several. Medical applications, cell phones, and field soldiers could all benefit. 3D printing technology can also reduce the time required to prototype an optical design from months to days, saving significant time.
However, there are challenges to 3D printing optical components, such as limited availability of optically relevant materials, slow manufacturing speed, and high cost, particularly for large volumes. Researchers are working on these issues with various 3D-printing techniques such as fused deposition modeling, inkjet printing, stereolithography, and two-photon polymerization.