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Clear, Translucent, and Transparent Plastic 3D Printing

Discover Transparent Plastic 3D Printing and its applications in the industry.

Introduction Transparent Plastic 3D Printing

Clear, translucent, and transparent 3D printed parts are useful for a wide array of applications. These parts with varying degrees of clarity are predominantly printed for one or more of the following purposes: visibility to see what is inside of them, the ability to allow light to pass through them, and aesthetic reasons.  

Difference Between Clear, Translucent, and Transparent Materials

The ability to see through a clear plastic 3D printed part depends on the material utilized. The difference among plastic parts with transparency or clarity classifications such as clear, translucent, or transparent is key to understand, before specifying 3D printing materials or selecting printing processes. It is also important to understand how refraction, specular reflection, diffuse reflection, and absorption alter the transparency of an object.

  • Specular reflection (AKA reflection) happens when almost all the light rays that hit a surface bounce off the surface in a single direction i.e., mirrors.
  • Diffuse reflection happens when almost all the light rays that hit a surface bounce off in a multitude of directions i.e., non-glossy painted surfaces.
  • Absorption refers to a phenomenon whereby nearly all the light that hits a surface is absorbed by the material itself i.e., black chalkboards.
  • Refraction occurs when light is transmitted through a material i.e., glass or water.

Transparent objects tend to refract light or allow light to predominantly pass through them, instead of the light bouncing off the surface. Light travels through different materials at different speeds. The speed at which it travels through a material, or the index of refraction, is an indicator of the transparency of the material.  More specifically, the index of refraction is the ratio of the speed of light in a vacuum to the speed of light in a medium. As is evident from the data in the following table, the higher the index of refraction, the less transparent a material is:

Material

Index of Refraction

Air

1.0003

Polycarbonate

1.052

Water

1.33

Polylactic Acid (PLA)

1.450

Acrylic

1.489

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

1.549

Quartz

1.533-1.544

Rock Salt

1.544

Aluminum

1.667

Diamond

2.417

From the above table, one may discern that some common 3D printing materials are not optimal if the desire is to perform clear 3D printing, due to their relatively higher refractive indexes.

Clear 3D Printed Parts

Colored acrylic tubes

A clear 3D printed is tinted to a certain color, so it is not fully transparent. Clear 3D printed parts are relatively see-through, but they are typically not polished to a finish that allows all light to pass entirely through them. It will typically have a higher index of refraction than non-tinted a 3D printed translucent or transparent part. Post-processing methods such as spray coating, polishing, and resin dipping can help to achieve a higher level of transparency in clear 3D printed parts. Sometimes, as is done in this article, clear 3D printed parts are used to refer to color tinted or non-tinted.

Translucent 3D Printed Parts

Translucent 3D printed parts are relatively clear, meaning some light will pass through them. Translucent 3D printing, or translucid 3D printing results in a light pattern through the material with a significant amount of diffusion or distortion. More specifically, if a printed paper with text on it is placed on one side of a translucent 3D printed part and read from the other side of the part, the text will not be legible because it will be fuzzy or unclear. This is because the light changes direction many times within the material, some reflecting and some refracting. Because of this, translucent materials have a relatively higher index of refraction. Examples of translucent materials include tinted car windows, wax paper, vegetable oil, stained glass, and frosted shower glass doors.

Transparent 3D Printed Parts