23 January 2017 Opto-mechanical components built with 3D printing
A study published in PLOS ONE, resulting from a collaboration between Universidad de los Andes and ICFO, reports on the development of opto-mechanical components created with 3D printing. Three-dimensional objects can be made with 3D printing by synthesizing successive layers of material through computer controlled processes. With the advent of new technologies and new processes such as delivery drones, virtual reality and Big Data, we are entering an era, some believe it might be the third industrial revolution, where companies and individuals are in need of coming up with new ways of manufacturing, distributing and consuming products and services. However, the world is still in a development phase in which 3D printing is only advantageous over other manufacturing technologies in very specific scenarios, scientific research being one of them.

In a recently published paper in PLOS ONE, ICFO researchers Dr. Luis Jose Salazar-Serrano, and UPC Professor at ICFO Juan P. Torres, leader of the Quantum Engineering of Light research group, in collaboration with researcher Dr. Alejandra Valencia, from the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia and former ICFOnian, report on the development of a set of opto-mechanical components, that is a kinematic mount, a translation stage and an integrating sphere, by using a 3D printer based on Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) and parts that can be found in any hardware store. These opto-mechanical elements are key ingredients of many photonic setups, both for scientific research as well as for industrial manufacturing.

In their study, the team of researchers has given a brief description of the 3D models they used as well as general details on the fabrication processes implemented. By means of three simple experimental setups, they were able to evaluate the performance of the opto-mechanical components developed by carrying out a quantitative comparison with their commercial counterparts. Their results indicated that the 3D printed fabricated components are highly customizable, low-cost, require a short time to be fabricated and amazingly enough offer similar performances as do their commercial counterparts.

These results could have a major impact on the photonics community worldwide since 3D printers based on Fused Filament Fabrication are becoming more affordable and therefore, opto-mechanical components can be fabricated practically anywhere. The fact that these fabricated components have shown to have a similar performance with respect to low-end commercial alternatives, in terms of stability and robustness, definitely opens a new path for photonics to industries and academia in limited resource regions. This would not only enable a rapid growth of the photonics communities but it would also help reduce the increasing costs of fabrication processes as well as overcome bureaucratic and often funding restrictions that hinder the access to cutting-edge research.