Data you can hold in your hand – or put on the mantelpiece

The way we look at data could be changed forever by a new 3D printing technique that allows the creation of detailed, multi-coloured objects representing information of any degree of complexity without the distortions and simplifications that plague current methods.

A team of researchers led by technologist Neri Oxman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US describe the new technique in a paper in the journal Science Advances, claiming it is a step toward “the elimination of the digital/physical divide”.{%recommended 6647%}

The field of “data physicalisation” or “physical visualisation” is a growing one, as the increased use of big data in science brings with it the challenge of representing all that information in ways that are accessible to mere human brains. 

Two-dimensional displays on computer screens are useful, Oxman and colleagues write, as are more immersive virtual reality arrangements, but sometimes nothing quite replaces an object you can hold in your hand.

Many existing 3D printing techniques are unsatisfactory, however. Some, such as powder-based binder jetting, can build complex surfaces in different colours, but require data to be converted to a simplified geometric form for printing. Crystal laser engraving can draw curves and clouds of points inside a solid block, but are limited to a single colour. Other methods likewise have their limitations.

The new technique is a “multimaterial voxel-printing method”, which allows printing with a variety of materials at a resolution of up to 2.3 million solid dots, or “voxels”, per cubic centimetre. Any colour or combination of shading can be represented using six “inks”: the cyan, magenta, yellow and black that will be familiar to anyone who has used a paper printer, plus white and transparent.

The data to be printed is “rasterised”, or broken down into voxels, and the model is then printed layer by layer. The authors envisage applications for medical imaging (such as using solid prints of MRI scans to prepare for surgery), ultra-realistic replicas of archaeological artefacts such as cuneiform tablets, and a wide array of educational tools in science and mathematics.

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