As everything from consumer electronics to medical devices continues to shrink, manufacturers keep running up against the problem of detail: How do you make parts and pieces that are nearly microscopic while maintaining their finer points? Microfabrica, a company based in Van Nuys, Calif., has developed a process that combines 3-D printing, wherein structures are built up layer by layer, with the same manufacturing techniques used to make computer chips, whereby metal ions are essentially electroplated to a surface. The process can create objects from layers of metal with a thickness of just five microns, or 0.0002 inch, yielding extremely refined structures. (Compare that with polyjet 3-D printers, which spray plastics from nozzles at layers as small as 16 microns.)
Microfabrica's technique opens doors for new types of tools as well as old tools at new scales. For instance, the company has developed a tiny radiator for cooling computer chips under a darpa initiative and a miniature timing mechanism for use in munitions. Microfabrica also makes minuscule surgical instruments, including biopsy forceps less than one millimeter in diameter and a tissue scaffold with linkages that allow it to expand with cell growth. Carol Livermore, a mechanical and industrial engineering professor at Northeastern University, calls Microfabrica's capabilities impressive. “I am not aware of any kind of high-end 3-D printing that exceeds that performance,” she says.