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New technology allows for high-speed 3D printing of tiny objects


March 12, 2012

A race car model no larger than a grain of sand, created using the new high-speed two-photon lithography process

A race car model no larger than a grain of sand, created using the new high-speed two-photon lithography process

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Are 3D printers not amazing enough already? Apparently some scientists at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna) didn't think so, as they have now built one that can create intricate objects as small as a grain of sand. While the ability to 3D-print such tiny items is actually not unique to the TU Vienna device, the speed at which it can do so is. According to the researchers, this makes the commercial production of things such as medical implants much more viable.

The printer uses an existing process called "two-photon lithography," and utilizes a special type of liquid resin. That resin contains molecules which cause the liquid around them to harden into a polymer, once they're exposed to laser light. In order to be activated, however, they must absorb two photons of that light at once. The only place where the beam is intense enough for that to happen is right at its center. This allows for great precision in the printing process, as only the very middle of the beam is the "active" part.

Additionally, unlike traditional 3D printing, two-photon lithography allows for solid material to be created anywhere within the depth of the liquid resin - it isn't limited to simply adding to a surface layer of hardened material.

Along with the resin, another one of the keys to the Vienna printer's peppy performance is a high-speed motorized mirror system, that directs the beam of the laser within that resin. Because the mirrors are constantly in motion throughout the printing process, their acceleration and deceleration times have been minimized as much as possible, in order that more of their time can be spent on the actual creation of the object.

"The printing speed [of two-photon lithography] used to be measured in millimeters per second," said Prof. J├╝rgen Stampfl. "Our device can do five meters in one second."

As can be seen in the video below, the printer is currently pretty darn good at building things such as tiny race car models - it can make one that's a mere 285 micrometers long in just four minutes. A bio-compatible resin is currently in the works, however, which could hopefully be used to build micro-scaffolding for a patient's living cells to grow into, in the creation of biological tissues.

Source: TU Vienna

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

That is freaking amazing. Can't wait for this to take off.

Joel Detrow

While 3-D printing is neat and very useful in some areas, it will be nice when the novelty, yes for the most part it is a novelty, wears off and we quit hearing about it on a daily basis. Maybe the end all, be all would be a 3-D printer that prints 3-D copies of itself in infinite regress.


Fantastic! Now prototyping for those super tiny motors, robots etc can be done. There is going to be a whole lot of micro stuff around, like tiny, small as ants, robots that help search for victims in earthquakes, etc.

Unfortunately, there'll be a downside, too when they use this technology wrongly.


@Rt1583 - I disagree. The machine above looks like the immediate forbearer of ridiculously useful devices CAPABLE OF BUILDING LARGE PROFIT MARGINS...not a "novelty" item.

Chris Cranmer


Vivek Yadav

Really transformational technology... if "micro" is the future, now we have a way to build those devices for our common good (and profit).


Matt Rings

I am just wondering how "super tiny motors" will be powered. Wouldn't that require "super-duper tiny batteries" ?? And just how long would these batteries last??

Charles Fischer

That is awesome, will absolutely have to Tweet this.

Its amazing just how far we have come this last decade.


Sure it is neat...Sure somebody will buy it. Now somebody explains to me this micro tech stuff...Where is it getting its power from again?

Luan To
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