It’s a small world: Nanofabrica talks opportunities for micro 3D printing

I’m sure you’re familiar with those early iterations of Google Glass; Matrix-style smart glasses we were all supposed to be wearing, talking to and receiving instant messages on in 2013. Perhaps a little before their time, in a recent conversation with TCT, Avi Cohen, Executive VP at Nanofabrica remembers those original prototypes as “bulky and clumsy,” and yet, while Glass eventually found itself a niche audience amongst industrial users for hands-free labour, had a technology like micro 3D printing been around, Cohen reckons it could have been a different story.

The ability to 3D print miniature parts like connectors and lens holders in the case of Glass, are just some of the examples Cohen offered during a conversation about why the Tel Aviv company’s Micro Adaptive Projection technology might be more relevant than ever.

“The world is getting smaller,” Cohen told TCT. “It’s surprising, so many people approach us from so many different industries, so many small parts – sometimes you think you’ve seen it all and then you see something smaller and smaller.”

For Cohen, who has spent more than two decades in the AM industry, 16 of which were at Stratasys, followed by five years at XJet focusing on the healthcare market, micro 3D printing represents a stark contrast to the trend to print bigger parts he had been witnessing since the ‘90s. Now, as laptops get thinner, mobile phones get smaller, and smart devices are compact enough to be worn around your wrist, the demand for micro parts is palpable.

“Back then, and during the years, people were looking to always print bigger,” Cohen said of AM’s early days. “Nobody stopped for a second and said, ‘What happens if you try to go smaller and smaller?’ At Nanofabrica, this is what we are doing. We are printing such tiny parts I could never have believed were even possible. It’s also a question of, what do you do with small parts? Who needs [them]? There is a huge market.”

Nanofabrica was established in 2016 by CEO Jon Donner and CTO Eyal Shelef with a foundation in optics and a vision to combine micro DLP projection with an adaptive optics system to deliver high volume, high precision digital manufacturing. Launched commercially in 2019 after scooping up that year’s TCT Hardware – Polymers Award, Nanofabrica’s patented process was officially packaged up last year into the Tera 250 platform, so-called due to the 250 trillion voxel capacity of its build area. With a print volume of 50 x 50 x 100 mm, the machine is said to enable the mass manufacture of over 10,000 1 mm sized parts in a single job. Shortly after our conversation took place, Nanofabrica signed a $50+ million acquisition deal with 3D printed electronics company Nano Dimension.

As Cohen suggests, those tiny parts represent a huge potential market. Nanofabrica estimates there’s an even split between customers using the technology to make small parts for production and those creating small molds to inject their own end use materials. In terms of industries, Cohen says Nanofabrica is being approached by all of the key markets you would expect from AM like medical device manufacture, consumer goods and aerospace, while interest from more specialist industries like watchmaking, where tiny precision parts are paramount, has also been piqued.

Applications include casings for microelectronics, micro springs, micro actuators and micro sensors, and there are numerous opportunities for medical components such as micro valves, micro syringes, and micro implantable or surgical devices. Recently, infrared inspection company Unispectral deployed the technology to produce adapter components for a miniature spectral camera filter which will be embedded into mobile phones. Whether it’s printing molds or direct parts, Cohen says predominantly, it’s all about mass production.

“In 3D printing, you have the freedom of design. People approach from different applications; jigs and fixtures to final parts. Just recently, I had a medical company that developed a very small insulin pump and they needed everything to be printed very, very small. Lenses or lens holders that people would like to print in the mobile industry and surprisingly also, the fibre optics industry, they would like to use [the technology] for micro-sized fibres to run through the parts.”

While Cohen emphasizes his confidence in the technology’s abilities, the challenges around micro 3D printing are what you might expect. Parts are so small that handling them usually calls for a microscope to inspect and ensure no runaways. The second is market education. Parts that may have not been possible to produce with traditional manufacture, such as complex components or those too small to accommodate any post-processing steps like drilling, can now be designed for and made via additive. The next challenge is materials.

Nanofabrica is developing proprietary materials in-house, the first of which is Precision N-800, a strong and flexible ABS-like material that’s said to be ideal for structural applications across various industries. When asked if there’s scope for metals, Cohen said direct printing is unlikely but he did share that the technology allows for printing in composite materials, like glass and ceramics, and the company is open to conversations with external companies to explore this further. So far, Nanofabrica has been working on a ceramic loaded material called Performance N-900 with loadings of up to 80%, and the team is now building on that in the hopes of reaching near 100% with a 1-micron resolution.

“I’m a big believer in materials,” Cohen said. “Materials open up applications, new customers, show innovation, open up new markets, increase sales and answer customer demands. We are very closely listening to our customers, hearing their needs about materials and definitely [making] a lot of effort to make more materials available.”

Perhaps Google Glass could have found a different fate had Nanofabrica been around a decade earlier but for those micro applications coming through today, spurred by a world that’s getting increasingly smaller, and as the company continues to scale up backed by multi-million dollar investments from the likes of Microsoft’s M12 funding arm, Cohen says the technology is more than ready.

“Micro 3D printing is possible,” he assures. “It’s here, and it’s here to stay.”

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