Friend of MAKE Bertier Luyt, president of French 3D printing company Le Fab Shop, was intrigued with the possibilities of hydrographic technology after seeing this popular YouTube video demonstrating the technique of applying graphics using hydrographic film:
Hydrographics (aka immersion printing, water transfer printing, water transfer imaging, cubic printing, or hydro dipping) has been used by manufacturers for years.
The hydrographic process can be used on metal, plastic, glass, hard woods, and various other materials. … In the process, the substrate piece to be printed is pre-treated and a base coat material is applied. A polyvinyl alcohol film is gravure-printed with the graphic image to be transferred, and is then floated on the surface of a vat of water. An activator chemical is sprayed on the film to dissolve it into a liquid and activate a bonding agent. The piece is then lowered into the vat, through the floating ink layer, which wraps around and adheres to it.
After removing the piece from the water, a top coat is applied to protect the design. With multiple dippings, hydrographics printing can achieve full 360° coverage of the part surface, including small crevices.
Of course Luyt was eager to see how this technique would work with 3D-printed plastic objects, and his team did a test on the pair of printed shoes seen at the top of the post. They shared their how-to on Instructables, and they write: “Our first tests left us speechless. This technique really does feel like magic.”
Here’s their tutorial video: