Nanoscribe, a spin-off from theKarlsruhe Institute of Technologyin
Germany, has developed a tabletop 3-D microprinter that can create
complicated microstructures 100 times faster than is possible today. "If
something took one hour to make, it now takes less than one minute,"
says Michael Thiel, chief scientific officer at Nanoscribe.
While 3-D printing of toys, iPhone covers, and jewelry continues to grab headlines (see "The Difference Between Makers and Manufacturers"),
much of 3-D printing"s impact could be at a much smaller scale.
Micrometer-scale printing has shown promise for making medical and
says it should be possible to speed up his company"s microprinting
technique even more in the future. Nanoscribe plans to start selling its
machine in the second half of this year.
Printing microstructures with features a few hundred nanometers in size could be useful for making heart stents,microneedlesfor painless shots,gecko adhesives, parts for microfluidics chips, andscaffoldsfor
growing cells and tissue. Another important application could be in the
electronics industry, where patterning nanoscale features on chips
currently involves slow, expensive techniques. 3-D printing would
quickly and cheaply yield polymer templates that could be used to make
far, 3-D microprinting has been used only in research laboratories
because it"s pretty slow. In fact, many research labs around the world
use Nanoscribe"s first-generation printer. The new, faster machine will
also find commercial use. Thiel says numerous medical, life sciences,
and nanotechnology companies are interested in the new machine. "I"m
positive that with the faster throughput we get with this new tool, it
might have an industrial breakthrough very soon," he says.
technology behind most 3-D microprinters is called two-photon
polymerization. It involves focusing tiny, ultrashort pulses from a
near-infrared laser on a light-sensitive material. The material
polymerizes and solidifies at the focused spots. As the laser beam moves
in three dimensions, it creates a 3-D object.
printers, including Nanoscribe"s present system, keep the laser beam
fixed and move the light-sensitive material along three axes using
mechanical stages, which slows down printing. To speed up the process,
Nanoscribe"s new tool uses a tiny moving mirror to reflect the laser
beam at different angles. Thiel says generating multiple light beams
with a microlens array could make the process even faster.
is very challenging to do, and the Nanoscribe tool excels at it," Greer
says. "I don"t think there is another company out there that is capable
of such precision." Greer"s research team uses the first-generation
Nanoscribe printer to create and study materials that could be used for
catalysts and to make strong, lightweight structures, but she
acknowledges that its slowness is a drawback.