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.)

Credit: Microfabrica

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.