Interview: Boston Micro Fabrication announces global launch of PµSL 3D printing technology

Boston Micro Fabrication (BMF) has announced the global launch of Projection Micro-Stereolithography (PµSL) technology after an initial roll-out of its microArch series of machines in China. 

The 3D printing process is designed to produce high precision microscale parts and has been in development for over a decade with research being carried out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by co-founder Nick Fang, amongst others.

Fang, along with serial entrepreneur Dr Xiaoning and 3D printing technologist Dr Chunguang Xia, first launched BMF and PµSL (pronounced pulse) in China 18 months ago, with 40 machines being installed last year. Expanding its reach across the globe, the company has set up offices in Boston, USA and Tokyo, Japan to complement its Shenzhen office and has also appointed industry veteran John Kawola as CEO. Together, they are vying to facilitate the printing of parts down to a resolution of two microns in a range of vertical markets.

“When it comes to additive manufacturing, the next frontier of innovation isn’t big, it’s high precision, small parts,” commented Kawola in a press release. “There’s no question that additive manufacturing starts to lose its appeal as parts get smaller. Challenges with precision and accuracy have stymied innovation for engineers and manufacturers looking to develop small, high-resolution parts. That’s all about to change with the introduction of microArch.”

PµSL can deliver parts of such high-resolution thanks to its high-precision optics, advanced digital microdisplay technology and ‘top-down’ printing, combined with a high-quality movement platform which sees the vat change position rather than the light source or lens.

The technology has been packaged into a number of machines which can achieve resolutions as low as 25μm, 10μm and 2μm, respectively, and are currently supported by more than half a dozen photopolymers. A printing service is also in place for those customers who wish to try before they buy or cannot justify the cost of bringing the technology in house. The prices of the microArch systems range between $125,000 for the P140 and S140 platforms [10μm] to $250,000 for the P130 and S130 machines [2μm].

In the Asian market, BMF has already made progress on its mission to ‘introduce PµSL to industry’ after years of R&D. The company says it has received positive feedback and garnered some ideas on how to enhance the microArch systems to facilitate production applications. Despite sharing similarities with the latest DLP technology, the company is looking beyond the dental, jewellery and hearing aid applications where many of its competitors have a play, and instead focusing on highly precise, ‘primarily industrial’ parts.

“We’re talking verticals like electronic MEMS (micro electro-mechanical systems), microfluidics, medical devices, filtration,” Kawola listed when talking to TCT ahead of the global launch. “[These are] primarily industrial applications that one, have been a little bit out of reach of existing additive manufacturing technologies – the best of the best of SLA can’t really make these parts effectively – and two, on the manufacturing side, these parts are expensive and difficult to mould or machine. These industry sectors aren’t well served by additive manufacturing.”

To reinforce this point, Kawola exampled connector parts in the electronics industry, so small you could fit 100 of them in your hand, being injection moulded by one of BMF’s Chinese users. The moulds required to manufacture these parts can cost around $200,000, yet 3D printing previously wouldn’t have been considered as an alternative because it would not be possible to achieve the desired resolution. BMF believes it can not only achieve the resolutions this user wants, but also better the economics.

“You’re trying to achieve the same quality in terms of material properties and surface finish and accuracy, but maybe even more importantly, you’re trying to match or exceed the economics. I think it would be a general thing to say, for polymer parts, the industry is still in a place where 3D printing is attractive only for relatively small volumes versus injection moulding. The dynamic you have with very small, detailed parts is a little bit different,” Kawola explained. “One, the mould is much more expensive, generally, and two, the material cost of each part is relatively low compared to larger plastic parts. Even if your 3D printing materials are more expensive than your injection moulding materials, which is pretty much always the case today, it doesn’t matter as much because the material contribution to the overall part is very low. The math changes for this injection moulding versus 3D printing [comparison].”

Other users of PµSL in China include companies in the medical device space, some in the cosmetics world and others carrying out R&D in corporate and academic environments. Meanwhile, the University of Nottingham has become the first PµSL user in Europe and a customer in North America has been secured too.

“For companies to make a real impact, they have to have a differentiated technology that’s more valuable than what’s currently available.”

Kawola told TCT the current performance capabilities of the microArch machines are more suited to prototyping, though serving the production needs of its customers is what the company is ultimately reaching for. He says to jump from one to the other, two things are required. The first is speed, ‘you want to make sure it doesn’t take you a year to make 20,000 parts,’ and the other is materials capability. BMF has its own materials expertise in-house which has churned out the first seven materials in its portfolio – which includes two high-temperature grades, plus tough, hard, transparent, low viscosity and biocompatible resins – but is also embracing the open approach and therefore is interested in partnering with some of the ‘big polymer companies’ also operating in the additive space.

Collaboration with these companies, plus some enhancements to its machines with the aid of feedback from early users, will be key.

“We do see some niche production applications happening today with some early customers, where they want to make a couple of hundred parts and the materials are suitable for that application today. [And] we have some biocompatible materials that would be suitable for production today,” Kawola said. “But some of the wide-reaching production applications in medical device and electronics, and a few others, will come with future improvements to the platform and future improvements to materials.”

Having first entered the industry in 1997, Kawola is confident, despite the prior struggles of other 3D printing technologies to do so, that BMF can afford manufacturers the ability to additively manufacture microscale parts at high precision. While the work was being done to develop PµSL technology in the lab, Kawola was stepping up to become Z Corp’s CEO, a position he held for four years. As BMF was being launched in China, Kawola was settling into his role as Ultimaker’s North America President, where he remained until 2019. By the time BMF was ready to expand, Kawola was available to take a trip to Shenzhen to see what Fang and the team had done so far.

China was chosen as the place to launch because Fang, as a Chinese American professor, had a strong network of contacts throughout the region. That network allowed Fang and his fellow co-founders to build a team of around 40 people in the city, develop the microArch platform, raise the money to commercialise it and find around 40 customers to deploy PµSL. All that seemed impressive to Kawola, as did the market opportunity.

“I was looking to get back into something that’s earlier stage. [BMF] is early stage from a commercial point of view, [but] we’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting on the technical side. We have a lot of advanced technology from the optics to the mechanical engineering to the materials, the software,” Kawola said.

“And I was looking for a space that wasn’t crowded. I think you could make an argument that the additive manufacturing market, whether its desktop printing or metal sintering, has gotten pretty crowded. I think for companies to make a real impact they have to have a differentiated technology that’s more valuable than what’s currently available and then they have to execute, build the team, have good quality, treat their customers well and find applications. I was impressed with how fast [the BMF team] were able to move in terms of raising money and developing a platform in less than two years.”

As the team began to look globally, they decided Shenzhen wasn’t the place from which to make that next step. A market development team remains there, as does a materials team and machine manufacturing capacity, but it’s in Boston where the company will look to build an international presence. Here, there will be sales, marketing and business development personnel – as there will be in Tokyo – and the site will also be where the company develops relations with polymer companies and qualifies materials and applications with customers. 

With this global infrastructure, BMF is looking forward to seeing how its target vertical markets leverage PµSL. 

“Curiosity was one of the primary drivers of this discovery,” commented Fang. “After realising that we could print using light, we started to imagine the broader technology and business implications – envisioning how we might break down the barriers that previously prevented manufacturers from taking advantage of 3D printing for the production of microscale parts. At that moment, we created the business to explore the possibilities and I am incredibly excited to see what our customers will accomplish using microArch.”

“Prior to microArch, there were a number of economical and technological limitations that made it near impossible for manufacturers to capitalise on the benefits of 3D printing for small parts,” added Kawola. “We’re eliminating those limitations with a new approach that we expect to have a big impact.”

BMF will showcase PµSL 3D printing technology at this year’s TCT 3Sixty event being held in Birmingham, UK between September 29th and October 1st, 2020

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