Overcoming Limitations By Innovation

From human bones to jet engine parts, products made through 3D printing technology have been increasingly transforming our world. The potential is limitless, and perhaps, at some point, it may no longer be a question of "what else can it print?" but "how else can we print?"

In a recent press release, scientists from Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering announce that they have just constructed a new 3D printer that could spew out conductive metallic ink at the microscale, possibly leading to more complex architectures and electronic devices.

It also has the ability to print objects in mid-air. By printing in mid-air, users can create freeform objects and patterns that were not possible using traditional 3D printers.

Re-engineering Printing

The team was led by Wyss Core Faculty member Jennifer Lewis, and she describes their technology as a "laser-assisted direct ink writing method," in the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The 3D metal printer has a nozzle that uses ink composed of silver nanoparticles, and as the ink is being sent out of the nozzle, it is also directly annealed through a precisely programmed laser.

The researchers indicate that this was devised with a heat transfer model to control the distance between the nozzle and the laser, allowing for the 'on-the-fly' printing. This level of control allows for the wires to be printed directly on plastic surfaces due to the localized laser heating.

Apart from that, the printer nozzle, which looks much like a pen, is capable of positioning along the x, y, and z axes. Combined with a rotary print stage, you could, in fact, create precise curvilinear shapes like butterfly wire frames.

The silver wires were noted to exhibit excellent electrical conductivity, which the researchers believe could lead to nearly limitless applications. Highly customized electronics, wearables, biomedical devices, and various architectures are just some of the imagined products that this printer could bring the world of technology.

Ultimately, the institute asserts that technology is a testament on how it's still possible to innovate current technologies, even ones as sophisticated as 3D printing.

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