I interviewed Joachim Göbner, CEO at 3D MicroPrint, to understand 3D printing at the microscale. 3D MicroPrint is specialized in micro sintering of small metal parts. This means, along with tiny medical devices, small parts for machinery, watches, aerospace, the semiconductor industry, and generally any precision component on the microscale is the company’s metier.
Micro laser sintering is a technology that was developed in 2013 as a joint venture between sintering giant EOS and precision machining company 3D MicroMac. Relatively unknown, it extends 3D printing to the millimeter and micron world. Alternatively, submicron printing is referred to as nanoprinting. The materials used are commonly 316L and 17-4PH steels, as well as titanium. The company sells machines and parts-as-a-service, as well as performs application development.
Clients can come to the firm to look at the feasibility of components, design services for optimizing parts for micro sintering, custom material development, serial production, or buy a machine. The firm is focused on industrializing micro sintering and does this as a one-stop-shop. Not touted as a revolution or game changer, this is simply a solution for hard to make parts for industry. Meanwhile, the firm is focused on true scale serial production and has been working quietly for years to extend the makable.
For certain industries making items on the microscale with 3D printing may be a fairly common occurrence, while for others this technology will only be used for that one elusive. difficult-to-make part. Whether it is a flow part, a probe, a tiny medical device or a high tolerance watch component, the technology will be used because there is no alternative manufacturing technology or alternative technologies are too expensive.
To run the business, EOS and 3D MicroMac picked Joachim Göbner, who worked at EOS for 18 years before moving to 3D MicroPrint over six years ago. We often use the term “industry veteran”, but, 24 years, in Göbner really deserves this title. He first started working at EOS on the firm’s (now defunct) stereolithography machines and moved through the company as it morphed and grew into the metals and polymer leader it is today.
Göbner says, “Size matters. Our 3D printing on the microscale is a powder bed process that fully melts parts—using powder that is less than five microns in size, and is usually used for 30-micron to five-micron parts, with wall thicknesses of 30 to 9 microns, depending on the design.”
A micron is one-millionth of a meter or .00004 inches. 50 to 75 microns is the thickness of a human hair, and a red blood cell is five microns in diameter. Fine sand is 125 microns in size. The width of a spider web is three to eight microns, while paper is around 70 to 180 microns thick.
We operate in a human-sized world where things are hand- and chair-sized and often don’t consider the tiny things that the industry needs. Micromachining, microelectromechanical systems, and micro surfacing are not commonly used or thought-of processes and technologies. In the medical sector, we tend to think of human-sized things, such as orthopedic implants that replace a knee, and not tiny stents that have been manufactured to work inside veins. Items like stents, pacemaker parts, bone screws, surgical anchors, and cochlear implant parts are tiny but essential. It is these kinds of minuscule essentials that are made with 3D Micro Print.
Göbner states, “We have good resolution, can make 20-micron gaps, can do assemblies, and we can do up to 5,000 parts per batch. The printers have a build volume of 60 by 60 by 30 cm and are usually used for small series made through a joint development with the customer because most customers just want parts.”
Given the miniature sizes, it is difficult to use saws or other mechanical tools for post-processing, so they rely on electropolishing and electrical discharge machining (EDM). EDM involves an electric arc that is created between a liquid and two electrodes, which causes sparks to erode a piece, smoothing it or removing unwanted material. EDM is a common post-processing technology for DMLS and other metal printing technologies used widely along with CNC and tumbling.
Göbner says that “80% of our business is medical devices” underscoring the many hidden high precision needs that this industry has. Fine details, cavities, and an increased design space or the tooling needs for MIM can cause customers to opt to 3D print parts. Often though, it’s the only technology that works, especially “for very complex things.” The company now has 18 employees and is “concentrated on microfabrication, especially for new emerging applications in medicine and industry.”
We don’t often think of the microscale and really small parts. As 3D MicroPrint’s success illustrates, however, tiny components can lead to exciting, lasting applications in 3D printing. What’s more, these applications and parts are being used as end-use components in some of the most exacting and highly regulated industries globally. Small series production of high-value items in these areas brings lasting profitability and long-term trust. The tiny may, therefore, potentially be a very big business.
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