Jan 20, 2016 | By Andre

3D Printing on a microscopic level has always offered unique challenges when compared with the 3D printing methods most of us are used to. Scientists at ETH Zurich have been working on a system to 3D print on such a tiny scale using a technique they call FluidFM since 2009. From that point forward, a spin-off company called Cytosurge has been formed to expand on the process so to further the manufacture of tiny, complex objects complete with overhanging features without the use of stencil support structures.

The complexities associated with working on such a microscopic scale are vast. For example, the aperature of the developed "print-head" measures in at 300 nanometres (roughly 500 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair). A quick run-down on 3D printing at such a scale begins with a tiny baseplate and a micro-pipette which in turn provides a channel for a slow and constant flow of a copper sulphate solution. While this is taking place, the pipette is moved precisely into position before an electrode is passed through, causing the copper sulphate to form solid copper onto a previously deposit before forming into shape one layer at a time.

A problem up until now has always been printing rather complex shapes on this level. Just as many are familiar with in the more common FDM type 3D printing methods, a support structure is required to assist with major overhangs in any design. These overhangs can be assisted by support structures that are removed after printing concludes. Unfortunately, this cleanup process slows down the manufacture of parts due to necessary post-production and finishing.

In existing 3D microprinting processes, these supports have to be manufactured beforehand using a placeholder that sits under the overhang that is to be printed. With the newly conceived technique discovered by Cytosurge, the forces acting on the tip of the pipette can be measured via the deflection of the leaf spring on which the micropipette is mounted. These measurements can then be used as signal feedback and as project developer Luca Hirt suggests, “unlike other 3D printing systems, ours can detect which areas of the object have already been printed. This will make it easier to further automate and scale the printing process.”

(example of nested spirals (microscope image; original width approx. 50 micrometres)

From a materials perspective they currently focus on 3D printing with copper sulphate. However, FluidFM can be applied to other metals and even possibly using polymers and composite materials.

The team at Cytosurge AG are now hoping their newly developed 3D printing method will be taken up for various applications in multiple markets. Dr. Pascal Behr, CEO of Cytosurge sees specific applications in watch and semiconductor industries as well as in the medical device sector. “It offers our customers interesting growth potential and possibilities to increase efficiency.”

The team has since submitted a patent application for their new micro-printing technology and sees big market potential with what they’ve developed. “We are convinced of the idea of using FluidFM in 3D microprinting. Now, the task is to optimize this application in collaboration with interested researchers at universities and in industry.”

It also appears the spin-off company still holds a strong relationship with founding partner ETH Zurich, by suggesting “It is a case of mutual give and take, from which both sides profit.” Cytosurge provides ETH with its latest equipment, which in turn are used by the ETH scientists to further develop and improve the technology.

Pondering 3D printing on such a small scale can be mind boggling to comprehend at times, but it isn’t a surprise that such research is being done to assist in the commercial and medical fields that exist with the necessity to fabricate on such a small scale.




Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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