Handheld, Chip-Based 3D Printer Demonstrated in DARPA-Funded Project


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In a study funded by organizations including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of Texas at Austin have created a proof-of-concept device that they’re claiming is “the first chip-based 3D printer.” The research team published the results of the study in an article, “Silicon-photonics-enabled chip-based 3D printer,” that appears in Nature Light Science and Applications.

Image courtesy of Nature Light Science and Applications

The prototype device, which “fits onto a U.S. quarter”, emerging out of work at MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) department, involving microscale optical antennas. The EECS team then combined their efforts with novel work UT researchers were doing on resins cured at high speeds using optical wavelengths.

Alongside its ability to produce “sub-millimeter scale voxels within seconds”, the device’s most intriguing aspect is its use of non-mechanical steering. Rather than using mirrors to aim the direction of the light source, the tiny 3D printer relies on an off-chip laser to guide the optical antennas with electrical signals.

Next, the team is aiming to use its findings to build a chip capable of hologram-based, volumetric 3D printing. The work should continue to draw the interest of public agencies like DARPA, which in March announced the Additive Manufacturing of Microelectronics systEms (AMME) program, an endeavor to make 3D printing at the 500 nm scale routine and rapid.

In an MIT press release about the handheld, chip-based 3D printer project, the paper’s senior author, EECS professor Jelena Notaros, said, “This system is completely rethinking what a 3D printer is. It is no longer a big box sitting on a bench in a lab creating objects, but something that is handheld and portable. It is exciting to think about the new applications that could come out of this and how the field of 3D printing could change.”

The paper’s lead author, EECS graduate student Sabrina Corsetti, explained, “With photocurable resins, it is very hard to get them to cure all the way up at infrared wavelengths, which is where integrated optical-phased-array streams were operating in the past for lidar. Here, we are meeting in the middle between standard photochemistry and silicon photonics by using visible-light-curable resins and visible-light-emitting chips to create this chip-based 3D printer. You have this merging of two technologies into a completely new idea.”

Image courtesy of Nature Light Science and Applications

That notion of a “merging of two technologies into a completely new idea” hits the nail on the head concerning what’s so exciting about the manufacturing R&D boom on the horizon over the next decade. No one technological field will have a monopoly on innovation.

The point, rather, is quite the opposite: those in the pure-research world want to gauge the potential for what can happen when the gains from every part of the whole landscape of the last couple of decades of manufacturing innovation are combined. If AM is a particularly significant component of this schema, it is because the design freedom and material-input versatility overlaps across such a diverse range of different high-tech areas.

Featured image courtesy of MIT

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