MADISON, Wis. — What's the first thing that pops into your head when you think of Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology?
If you're like me, you view DLP as a projector technology for high-definition images used at home and in digital cinemas. Rightly so. This is the application intended by the Texas Instruments engineers who invented it.
Over the last two decades, largely unbeknownst to TI, DLP has gradually found its way into unintended applications -- industrial and medical included -- thanks to persistent hacking by engineers.
According to Gina Park, product line manager of TI's DLP embedded group, engineers have been "ripping apart DLP." Hackers experimenting with the DLP chip identified its effectiveness for high-speed, efficient, and reliable spatial light modulation.
TI's Park, describing DLP as "the most flexible chip in the world," said, "These tiny micro mirrors turn out to be capable of doing a lot more than just projecting beautiful images."
In fact, TI today views DLP as "a programmable light steering technology used to expose photosensitive materials." DLP's new applications include PCB lithography, 3D machine vision, and 3D printing, according to Park.
A common thread of all these applications is their use of photosensitive materials and light exposure systems. The systems based on DLP technology project digital patterns from the Digital Micromirror Device (DMD) that "selectively cure and harden a layer of photopolymer in one shot," according to TI. As a result, "these systems have higher throughputs than point-by-point technologies while achieving micron-scale patterns."
More specifically, the use of DLP in PCB lithography, for example, improves throughput and eliminates the need for photomasks, Park explained. For 3D machine vision, DLP's advantage is its programmability. DLP-based machine vision can handle a diverse set of materials and objects in different sizes, creating pattern triangulation at very high speed with precision, she said. DLP's ability to achieve micron-level features for high accuracy is also effective for 3D printers. Combined with its fast build time, the DLP-based 3D printer is ideal for creating health-care related objects such as hearing aids or dental restorations, Park noted.
Realizing DLP's potential and responding to hackers' demand, TI created a new team called the DLP embedded group, where Park works. "We give folks opportunities to have access to DLP and explore the technology beyond display," Park explained."
New technologies initially designed for industrial and professional markets often trickle down to consumer applications as volume reduces cost over time. However, rarely observed is the reverse phenomenon of technology moving upstream from consumer to industrial market.
While TI declined to disclose the size of the DLP embedded group's business, the company is mining the DLP Makers' movement among professional engineers. It has created a community, offering documents, tools, software and DLP Design Network.
The DLP Design Network, according to TI, is "a group of independent, well-established companies that provide hardware/software integration, optics design, system integration, prototyping, manufacturing services, and turnkey solutions to a worldwide customer base to accelerate product development and time to market with DLP technology."
The following slideshow illustrates how DLP has morphed into a key enabler for diverse products over the last two decades.
Pico projector in a smartphone
Samsung Galaxy Beam
DLP technology has made its way into pico projectors. Samsung Galaxy Beam, unveiled in 2012, is a prime example of projector capabilities embedded in a smartphone. The built-in projector allows a user of the smartphone to share content with his friends, families, and colleagues virtually anywhere, simply by projecting images on the phone up to 50 inch in size onto any convenient wall.
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