In the past, I have used websites to generate lithophane files for 3D printing. A lithophane is an object that when light passes through it, an image is created because of the objects varying thickness. I just recently became aware of SOLIDWORKS’ ability to make these lithophanes out of nearly whatever shape you can imagine. This article will explore using 3DTextures in SOLIDWORKS 2023 to make a lithophane that can be placed on a windowsill standing or in front of any light source, but you can use the techniques to alter any shape you can draw. My cattle dog Sparki will be used as the image throughout, but almost any image will work.
Step 1: Model the Part
First, you will need to model the part that you want the lithophane to be on. Note the surface thickness that I used in the face that I wanted the lithophane to live on. It is thin enough that it is only approximately three nozzle widths thick so that light will be able to pass through the part still despite using an opaque printing material.
Step 2: Apply Appearance
Apply the picture you wish to use as an appearance to the face that you have modeled. You will also have to “map” the image to make it fit on the face the way you want it to appear in the lithophane. I have found that color images work with the 3Dtexture tool even though it is designed to be used with black and white images. If you notice your image isn’t generating a lithophane effect the way you would expect it can help to edit the picture to make it black and white. The software decides how far to extrude the texture based on how light or dark the image is, and a black and white image is a little easier than different shades of bright colors for example. You can drag and drop most picture files from windows explorer into SOLIDWORKS to apply them to your target surface.
Step 3: Insert 3DTexture
The next step is to simply expand the solid bodies folder, right click on the solid body that the appearance lives on and then select the 3DTexture icon from the right click menu. The icon looks like a surface with raised mountainous features. Upon clicking this icon, the property manager should change to look like the screenshot below. Make sure to select the appearance that you wish to texture. The numbers shown are from the test print shown at the beginning of the article, but there may be better settings out there. Also, it is important to make sure the white up black down checkbox is unchecked for the lithophane to appear with the correct shading. We want the areas that are darker in the picture to be thicker so less light will pass through them.
Step 4: Save Model as STL
Do a save as command and select STL from the menu. Under the STL saving options make sure you set your resolution high enough to make use of the highly detailed texture created by our previous settings. If something appears off with the final file you should be able to see it with whatever slicer you are using to get the file on the printer. My STL file save settings are shown below and they worked for the example.
SOLIDWORKS’ 3DTexture tool has other uses than simply adding knurling or diamond plate texture to a part file. As demonstrated above the tool also makes it easy to quickly apply a 3D printable lithophane surface on any 3D model. Try it out for yourself!
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