New Micro-3D Printing Technique Could Benefit Pentagon
The Defense Department has been researching and investing in additive manufacturing technologies for years, but emerging techniques and procedures being developed by industry could spark new opportunities.
One promising new technology that could aid the military is micro-3D printing, which enables the miniaturization of parts and components.
“There are numerous areas where this can help the DoD,” said James Zunino III, senior scientific technical manager for munitions at Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s advanced materials and manufacturing division.
These include enhancing capabilities to existing systems, volume optimization to reduce the size and weight of equipment troops must carry, and allowing for new technology solutions that were previously unavailable, he said during a recent webinar hosted by FedInsider.
John Kawola, CEO of Boston Micro Fabrication, a Maynard, Massachusetts-based company, said micro-3D printing is a burgeoning market.
“Certainly, miniaturization is a growing field,” he said during a webinar sponsored by Design World. “More and more medical device companies, electronics companies, optics and photonics companies want to make things smaller and smaller. The market demand is there [and] the pressure from customers for applications” is there.
Boston Micro Fabrication is conducting pioneering work with micro-3D printing techniques to meet the growing demand, Kawola said.
“BMF has really developed the technology to try to develop and help engineers with this and enable them to better design and reach their miniaturization goals,” he said.
For many pieces of equipment, such as lenses or sensors, there is a trend to make them smaller and smaller, he said. But traditional manufacturing techniques that have historically been used to make the parts don’t scale well and have other limitations.
To address this, the company developed a process it calls projection micro stereolithography, he said. The technique allows for the rapid photopolymerization of a layer of resin with ultraviolet light at micro-scale resolution, allowing the company to achieve ultra-high accuracy precision and resolution that cannot be achieved with other technologies, according to Kawola’s slides.
For micro-scale parts, engineers and designers often don’t have a good way to prototype today, he said. BMF’s new process can help with that.
“Right now, we’re fulfilling a real need because we’re able to make things at the scale … that designers and engineers can use,” he said. The company wants to “bring additive manufacturing to the micro market and help enable engineers and designers … fulfill the design that they are after in terms of miniatures,” he added.
The technology is particularly useful for manufacturing aids, jigs, fixtures, molding and casting tools and cavities, component parts, spare parts and personalized parts, he said.
There is a general rule that costs rise as components become smaller, he noted.
“As parts get smaller, they get more difficult to manufacture conventionally, … whether that’s standard geometries or more creative or challenging geometries,” he said.
For example, using traditional methods to manufacture a microfluidic chip would typically require etching or injection molding, bonding, layering and several other steps.
However, it’s relatively easy for a 3D printing machine, according to Kawola.
Micro-3D printing is particularly useful in manufacturing electro-mechanical parts that can be found in the optics and photonics market, he said. They are critical pieces of technology for augmented reality and virtual reality training systems, and particularly for head-worn equipment, Kawola added.
“Many, many people have seen the AR/VR glasses that are being used either for entertainment, but also for lots of really valuable … training and simulation applications,” he said. Oculus platforms have become increasingly popular in both the commercial and military worlds, for example.
However, one of the challenges with the technology is delivering a deluge of content to users coming from cameras, sensors and lighting systems, and putting it all in a package that is small, he said.
“People are excited about the AR/VR market — they’re not necessarily excited about the really large glasses that you have to wear on your head, and so we have a number of customers who are thinking about miniaturization in a range of optics and photonics markets,” Kawola said.
Using the technology for microneedle arrays could also be useful in the medical realm, he noted. Microneedle arrays are a series of very small needles used to rapidly deliver drugs to patients.
While there has previously been research into additively manufacturing this type of technology, micro-3D printing could “drive this much faster, and has really come to head with what we’ve been living through for the last 18 months,” Kawola said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The world has discovered that immunizing billions of people with the traditional needle in the vial … just doesn’t scale very well.
It takes months and months and months even if you had all the vaccines ready to go.”
In September, the company unveiled its microArch S230 system to facilitate micro-3D printing. The system offers ultra-high resolution, accuracy and precision. It has a larger build volume, is faster than its predecessor by five times and can print industrial-grade materials including composites such as ceramics, Kawola said.
Brandon Ribic, technology director at America Makes, a national accelerator for additive manufacturing and 3D printing based in Youngstown, Ohio, said he is seeing an increased demand for miniaturization technologies.
“There are definitely folks who are interested in that,” he said. “There’s a couple of factors there where you can … derive utility, and those are largely the ability to, of course, make a geometry that you need. But then there’s also the ability to produce something that’s functional.”
As 3D printing took off in recent years — and particularly in the defense and aerospace sectors — additive manufacturing companies have been working to drive economies of scale, he said.
“There are a lot of folks who are trying to figure out how to turn the knobs of additive to make it a more economically favorable solution for higher volume applications,” he said. One way to “solve that problem is to look at smaller volume products where you can make … a considerable number of them in a given run, where you’re getting more from a single machine.”
Todd Spurgeon, a project engineer at America Makes, said he sees several ways the technology could be leveraged for the Defense Department. For example, it could be employed for higher-end electronics, circuits, small unmanned aerial vehicles and microneedle arrays for fast-acting medicines.
Using micro-3D printing for electronic and chip components could help ease supply chain issues that have been plaguing the nation, he said.
A global chip shortage has clobbered countless industries as demand soared for electronic devices during the pandemic.
While the United States is a leader in the design of semiconductors — which are foundational to everything from laptops to fighter jets — the manufacturing and production of microelectronics has moved offshore and is now concentrated in places such as Taiwan and China.
However, industry is still likely a few years away from manufacturing chips using 3D printing, he said. “I think we would have to mature the technology” more, he noted.
Meanwhile, other trends are developing in the 3D printing world, including bioprinting.
Finland-based startup company Brinter unveiled in November a new 3D printer known as the Brinter Core that can print multi-material and highly complex tissue structures in 3D, providing the basic features needed for bioprinting, according to a news release. The system is a modular and portable system that is 50 percent smaller and lower in cost than its predecessor. Brinter is active in more than 10 countries, including the United States, Germany, India and the United Kingdom.
The machine can print both stiff and soft materials, including liquids and hydrogels with living cells, bio-paste, metal and plastic, according to the company.
“We can combine liquid materials with solid materials and everything in between — all kinds of hydrogels, including cells,” said Brinter CEO Tomi Kalpio. The hope is to one day be able to print spare parts for patients including organs such as kidneys.
Kalpio believes Brinter Core could have applications for the military, but at these beginning stages it may be more utilized in healthcare research and development. The first steps would be printing patches of skin, he noted.
Pasi Kaskinen, Brinter’s sales and marketing director, said it would likely be 15 years at least before full organs could be printed. However, it’s difficult to predict how quickly technology will develop. “It always kind of surprises” people, he said.
For nearer term applications, Kaskinen said the Brinter Core could be used to model the effects of pathogens on humans.
“There are many ways [the] military can benefit from 3D bioprinting, and most are not directly action related,” he said. “Military personnel are exposed to all sorts of environments around the globe. Our understanding of how pathogens work in humans increases exponentially when applied in 3D that mimics reality.”
The company is currently working on some military projects but declined to disclose details.
Topics: Emerging Technologies