Color Your 3D Prints

Hydrographic Printing: Affordable Full-Color Prints for Everyone

Hydrographic Printing

Many have tried, but no one succeeded in making full-color 3D printing affordable. If you want to see full, vibrant color on your 3D models, your best bet is to use a fascinating technique called “hydrographic printing”. Here’s what you need to know. 

3D printing in full color still is very expensive. That might change. Thanks to 3D scanning and computational mapping technology, you can apply precise color patterns even to highly complex 3D objects.

The new method was described in a paper presented at SIGGRAPH by Yizhong Zhang, Chunji Yin, Changxi Zheng and Kun Zhou of the State Key Lab of CAD&CG at Zhejiang University, in collaboration with Columbia University’s. The team of researchers combined 3D mapping technology with advanced physical computation. Then they applied it to standard “hydrography”. Also called “water transfer printing”, this technique is based on the measurement and description of the physical features of oceans, seas, coastal areas, lakes and rivers.

The results are nothing short of impressive.

Mapping the Colors to the Object

cat dip
The computation hydrographic coloring method allows to apply complex color patterns to objects on multiple sides (image: Zejiahng University and Columbia University)

With hydrographic printing, the students calculate the way a color membrane will stick to the object when this is dipped in water. To do this, the team 3D scans the surface they need to apply the color to. Then they digitally superimpose the color membrane in order to find the correct pattern. This can then simply be 2D printed onto the membrane using a standard desktop inkjet printer. The results are truly impressive, as you can see in the video below.

“We present computational hydrographic printing, a new method that inherits the versatility of traditional hydrographic printing, while also enabling precise alignment of surface textures to possibly complex 3D surfaces”, the team behind the project wrote. “In particular, we propose the first computational model for simulating hydrographic printing process. This simulation enables us to compute a color image to feed into our hydrographic system for precise texture registration. We then build a physical hydrographic system upon off-the-shelf hardware, integrating virtual simulation, object calibration and controlled immersion.”


Kids, Try This at Home

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A pair of basic 3D printed shoes painted with a DIY hydrography kit (image: LeFabShop)

Fortunately, standard hydrographic printing is something you can already use at home. It should work with simpler 3D printed objects. In fact, not too long ago, LeFabShop, one of France’s leading distributors of 3D printers and 3D printing services, had published an entire Instructables on how to do hydrographic printing at home.

All you need to start with the hydrographic film kit, that will also generally include the Activator and the Primer. At this point, you will need a container deep enough to immerse the object completely.

Be aware that you need protection such as gloves and masks, as the Activator is toxic and corrosive! Scissors and masking tape will used to cover some parts of the object. A clear coating spray can be used to protect and fix the graphic. The entire process (excluding additive manufacturing of the object) should take around 3-4 hours, mostly for preparing the piece and letting the item dry after applying the primer (before dipping it).

A Colorful Eldorado

Affordable full-color 3D printing seems to be the “eldorado” of consumer 3D printing. It’s something that everybody wants; yet no one has presented a truly fitting commercial product. If you want to 3D color printing today you can do it with Mcor’s Iris paper 3D printer or with 3D Systems Projet x60 technology. But cost several tens of thousands of Dollars/Euro.

New projects have been announced: The Palette or Something 3D’s Chameleon 3D printer bring full-color 3D printing to basic FFF technology. But unfortunately, neither has yet hit the market.

With computational hydrographic printing, it may not even need to.