Photopolymerization is primarily used in stereolithography (SLA) to produce a solid part from a liquid. Stereolithography was patented in 1987 by Chuck Hull. This process dramatically redefined previous efforts, from the Photosculpture method of François Willème (1830-1905) in 1860 through the photopolymerization of Mitsubishi`s Matsubara in 1974.
In digital-light processing (DLP), a vat of liquid polymer is exposed to light from a DLP projector under safelight conditions. The exposed liquid polymer hardens. The build plate then moves down in small increments and the liquid polymer is again exposed to light. The process repeats until the model has been built. The liquid polymer is then drained from the vat, leaving the solid model. The EnvisionTEC Perfactory is an example of a DLP rapid prototyping system.
Inkjet printer systems like the Objet PolyJet system spray photopolymer materials onto a build tray in ultra-thin layers (between 16 and 30 µm) until the part is completed. Each photopolymer layer is cured with UV light after it is jetted, producing fully cured models that can be handled and used immediately, without post-curing. The gel-like support material, which is designed to support complicated geometries, is removed by hand and water jetting. It is also suitable for elastomers.
Ultra-small features can be made with the 3D microfabrication technique used in multiphoton photopolymerization. This approach traces the desired 3D object in a block of gel using a focused laser. Due to the nonlinear nature of photoexcitation, the gel is cured to a solid only in the places where the laser was focused and the remaining gel is then washed away. Feature sizes of under 100 nm are easily produced, as well as complex structures with moving and interlocked parts.
Yet another approach uses a synthetic resin that is solidified using LEDs.