Additive manufacturing in miniature

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

​Precision digital manufacturing means the ability to create highly-accurate parts at extreme levels of miniaturisation. This has been enabled by an innovation achieved by Israeli company Nanofabrica.

And what is this innovation? Nanofabrica has developed a technology that is a game-changer in the area of precision digital manufacturing, a technology that will become a key driver for Industry 4.0 in the world of micro manufacturing. The company makes the Tera 250 industrial micro additive manufacturing (AM) system which boasts the ability to achieve unprecedented micron-resolution with ultra-accurate features, details, accuracy, and precision – enabled by an innovative micro adaptive projection technology. The company for the first time brings the power of AM to applications and sectors of industry that require high precision and miniaturisation.

Avi Cohen is executive vice president global sales for Nanofabrica, with over 20-years experience working in the AM sector, before joining Nanofabrica as EVP Global Sales in late 2020 holding senior positions in Objet, later Stratasys, and Xjet.

He says: “At Nanofabrica, I lead the global sales effort. As an industry veteran, I have spearheaded product innovation and have driven customer adoption of 3D printing, and I feel that at Nanofabrica my experience and skills are perfectly synergistic with what is perhaps one of the most innovative and forward-thinking players in the space.”

The inspiration came from the founders of the company who were embedded in the world of micro manufacturing and the semi-conductor sector. They realised the power behind an AM technology that could achieve micron tolerances, introducing for the first time to the micro manufacturing sector the inherent advantages of 3D printing — namely the promotion of geometric complexity, mass customization, and timely and cost-effective part and component manufacturing.

The technology can be used in all sectors where miniaturisation is a key objective, and it is unique in that it is the only AM technology commercially available that can rival legacy manufacturing processes in terms of the accuracy, cost, and timeliness of manufacture.

The benefits are simple. The Tera 250 for the very first time provides manufacturers with an alternative to traditional technologies such as micro injection molding when looking to make precision plastic parts. This means that for the first time micro manufacturers can avoid the need to spend on expensive and time consuming micro tooling, and can take advantage of the agility of AM, and its ability to be agnostic to geometric complexity, which spurs innovation.

The challenges are equally simple. How for the first time can AM be refined to achieve accuracy levels previously unattainable, and to do this repeatably and in a time and cost-effective way for industrial applications? The answer is through

the true inspiration of a team of industry leading experts who combined various hardware, software, and material innovations.

Says Avi Cohen: “The background to the development of the Tera 250 was the desire to bring the benefits of AM to the micro manufacturing arena, and to play to two trends, the industry-wide move towards miniaturisation, and the continued assessment of AM as a true production technology. The Tera 250 is unique in that it is the only AM technology that can achieve micron tolerances and which can make tiny plastic parts or larger parts with micron features repeatably and at volume.”

The Tera 250 is based on the Digital Light Processor (DLP) engine combined with the use of adaptive optics. In conjunction with an array of sensors, this allows for a closed feedback loop, which enables the attainment of micron-level accuracy while remaining cost-effective as a manufacturing solution. Adaptive optics have been used in other areas of technology, but this is the first time that they have been applied to an AM technology.

In terms of software, the Tera 250 also has a multi-resolution strategy, meaning that the parts where fine details are required are printed relatively slowly, but in the areas where the details aren’t so exacting, the part is printed at a speeds 10 to 100 times faster. It also uses an algorithm family which focuses on file preparation, optimising parameters such as print angle build plate, supports etc… which once again ensure a precise, optimised, and reliable print process.

Finally, Nanofabrica has made huge strides in material science, and has developed its own proprietary materials (based on the most commonly used industry polymers) which enable ultra-high resolution in parts built.

“The market sectors that the Tera 250 is appropriate for are pretty much endless,” says Avi Cohen, “So it is difficult to home in on one example in particular. The technology is used in all sectors that are looking towards miniaturisation so the most obvious are micro-optics, semi-conductors, micro-electronics, MEMS, microfluidics, and life sciences, producing such products such as casings for microelectronics, micro springs, micro actuators and micro sensors, and numerous medical applications such as micro valves, micro syringes, and micro implantable or surgical devices.”

For all applications, it introduces the above-mentioned advantageous characteristics of AM for such micro applications for the first time such as speed of time-to-market, cost-effectiveness, and the ability to produce innovative parts with geometric complexity impossible using legacy manufacturing processes.

In terms of which markets it is targeting, Cohen says: “We work with most already. Again, nearly all sectors are moving towards miniaturisation whether driven by a desire to weight save, reduce product footprint while not compromising end-use functionality, or in the medical field to promote non-invasive surgical procedures, and so a viable AM technology that can achieve these requirements is of course attractive.”

As ever, materials place some of the biggest restrictions on the printing of micro parts, but this has been overcome by Nanofabrica by the development of its own proprietary materials. Just how important this has been is made clear by Avi Cohen.

“ to say that until Nanofabrica developed its materials, there were none available in the AM sector that could get close to achieving the micron sized features that are possible on the Tera 250. The two key materials we use are our Precision N-800 material which is ABS-like and combines strength and flexibility. There are countless applications for this engineering material, and it is an ideal material of choice for structural applications, across various industries such as electronics, optics, automotive, aerospace, and many more. Our Performance N-900 is a ceramic loaded material achieving 1 micron resolutions with nearly 100% ceramic. This is again a game-changer and opens up a vast array of possible applications.”

In terms of how the market for this technology could become, Cohen is unequivocal. “In a word, huge, he says. “You see, we are riding two compelling industrial trends. The drive towards miniaturisation, and the use of AM as a production technology due to the agility and versatility it brings to manufacturing. These trends will continue to accelerate, and as such so will interest in a technology that represents an attractive alternative to expensive and somewhat restrictive traditional micro manufacturing processes.”


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