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Nanoscale 3D Printing Looks Primed for Commercialization

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Nanoscale 3D Printing Machine

3D printing is all the rage now. Also known as the additive manufacturing process, in three-dimensional or 3D printing, an object is created using a digital model instead of using a mold. In this process, several thin layers of material are added together.

Inventors developed the technique in 1984, but it only recently began to take off as technological developments made this a viable manufacturing process.

Manufacturers in many industries use this technique to rapidly prototype before mass-producing products. By making prototyping faster, easier, and cheaper, 3D printing promotes more innovation and experimentation.

Today, the business of 3D printing has grown massively with constant advancement and research helping the technology get further better. Such has been the interest in 3D printing that scientists are now working on manufacturing techniques at both the micro and nanoscale.

While 3D printing is too slow to be used in mass production, nanoscale 3D printing might just solve this problem, and it is likely to be ready soon to put into use. 

Click here to learn all about investing in 3D printing stocks.

Nanoscale 3D Printing & its Potential

Ever since 3D printing technology was introduced, manufacturing productivity has increased. This increase is largely due to the fact that 3D printing enables significant design freedom by removing any structural or spatial limitations of traditional manufacturing methods. Additionally, it is noted for being material-efficient, offering the potential for low or no-waste manufacturing. 3D printing also plays a crucial role in reducing costs and the time to market for small manufacturers.

However, most applications for 3D printing are confined to the centimeter scale size. Beyond this, mechanical and material challenges limit its use primarily in research applications. So, to expand 3D printing to a mass manufacturing scale and evolve beyond just prototyping, the technology must address certain challenges related to size, material, and cost.

For this reason, many researchers are using multiple materials at multiple scales of size, a development that brings nanoscale 3D printing into focus. Nanotechnology involves measurements of less than 100 nanometers, a scale so minute that it is invisible to the naked eye. 

In the realm of nanoscale 3D printing, the goal is to 3D print objects measured in nanometers. This technology is a promising leap in additive manufacturing, enabling the assembly of objects atom by atom.

The potential of nanoscale technology extends to enhancing efficiency and productivity in various industries, such as batteries, nanorobotics, microelectronics, medical devices, semiconductors, and sensor technologies. These sectors stand to gain significantly from the precision of nanoscale creation without compromising accuracy.

Yet, the process of 3D printing, including at the nanoscale, remains slow. It also faces limitations in the types of materials that can be used, especially in nanoscale printing. 

In 2022, researchers developed a new nanoscale 3D printing method using a material that excels in resistance to forces, offers protection, and can absorb twice the energy that other materials could at the same density. This advancement opens up numerous applications in fields like drones, satellites, and microelectronics.

Another major challenge in adopting 3D printing technology is the cost. The materials used are expensive, and the 3D printing machines themselves, which depend on the ability to produce products with specific specifications, are costly. 

Additionally, the expenses for software, technological maintenance, and system integration further increase the overall cost of this technique. Due to such high cost, 3D printing remains more feasible for small-scale and highly specialized production.

Research in this field has been going on for some time to target different issues. For example, a few years ago, a team of researchers demonstrated a 3D printing technique that produces complex nanoscale 3D objects rapidly with smooth features.

However, the fact remains that despite its potential for advancing many devices, nanoscale 3D printing is extremely cost-prohibitive. This might finally change now as new research has found an approach that drastically reduces costs and barriers to entry, making the process feasible for commercialization.

Faster & Cheaper Way to Print Tiny Metal Structures With Light

The latest research has developed a new way of printing nano-sized metal structures that are based on low-intensity light. This new light-based approach is extremely fast, as much as 480 times than the methods currently in use while being inexpensive. 

This new study called “Scalable Printing of Metal Nanostructures through Superluminescent Light Projection (SLP)” was conducted recently by co-authors Sourabh K. Saha, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's mechanical engineering program, and Jungho Choi, who is a Ph.D. student in Saha's lab.

According to Saha, cost and speed are two factors that are “greatly undervalued in the scientific community” when working on the fabrication and manufacturing of tiny structures. While overlooked in the scientific world, these metrics are really important in the real world “when it comes to translating discoveries from the lab to industry.”

“Only when we have manufacturing techniques that take these metrics into account will we be able to fully leverage nanotechnology for societal benefit.”

– said Saha

Choi and Saha are also inventors on an SLP patent application for which the intellectual property rights are assigned to Georgia Tech Research Corporation.

Published in Advanced Materials, a weekly peer-reviewed scientific journal, the new study revealed that these researchers have developed a light-based way to print metal structures of nanoscale, which is faster, cheaper, and scalable. 

As such, this technology has the potential to transform the field of additive manufacturing, which is prohibitively expensive and slow. This breakthrough is 35x less expensive than technologies currently available in the market.

There are actually many technological advances in several fields that rely on the ability to print on nano-sized metallic structures, a technique known as nanopatterning. These fields include sensors, electronic devices, photonics, solar energy conversion, biomedicine and diagnostics, and other systems.

When it comes to nanoscale printing, it is believed the procedure needs a high-intensity light source. One such tool is a femtosecond laser, which provides ultrashort laser pulses to a focal point.

While really beneficial, this tool can be really expensive. Due to costing as much as half a million dollars, this tool is really not feasible for most research labs and, of course, small businesses.

As noted by Saha, it is this cost that makes it difficult for these breakthroughs to ever see the life of the real world, and they end up just being lab projects. He said:

“As a scientific community, we don't have the ability to make enough of these nanomaterials quickly and affordably, and that is why promising technologies often stay limited to the lab and don't get translated into real-world applications.” 

So, the next obvious question is, is there really a need for such a high-intensity tool? The answer was negative, as Saha said:

“Our hypothesis was that we don't need that light source to get the type of printing we want.” 

As a result, the researchers started searching for a lost-cost light that has low intensity but can be focused much like femtosecond lasers. And they came upon superluminescent light-emitting diodes (SLEDs), which were chosen for their commercial availability. 

A SLED is a superluminescence-based edge-emitting semiconductor light source that combines the brightness and high power of laser diodes with the low coherence of conventional light-emitting diodes. The light emitted by SLEDs is significantly less intense than that of femtosecond lasers.

Click here to learn why the lack of scientific fears won't be an issue anymore, thanks to advanced 3D printing technologies.

Low-intensity Light-based Projection-style Nano-sized Printing

With this research, Choi and Saha aimed to develop the first projection-style printing technology. This system is designed to operate like a digital projector in the way that it changes images from digital to optical and then exhibits them on a glass surface. 

However, the images produced by this printing technology are more sharply focused. This sharpness is the result of leveraging the unique properties of the superluminescent light to generate images with minimal defects.

This SLP or superluminescent light projection technique rapidly prints sub-diffraction (dimension shorter than the involved light's diffraction limit) nanostructures with less intense light. The researchers leveraged diode-based superluminescent light's spatial and temporal coherence properties. 

Now, for their research, they made use of metal salt along with other chemicals to develop a clear ink solution that can absorb light. When light from their projection system hit the solution, it caused a chemical reaction, converting the solution into metal. These metal nanoparticles stuck to the glass's surface, which created the nanostructures. 

Being a projection-style printing technology means it can be used to print entire structures all at once. The fact that instead of going point by point, this technique does it all in one go makes it faster than other conventional methods. 

Testing the light-based projection-style nano-sized metal printing revealed that it works with even low-intensity light, provided the images are sharply focused.

According to Choi and Saha, their work can be replicated by other researchers swiftly using commercially available hardware. This won't cost much either, as the type of SLED that was used in their research costs just about $3k.

This way, the research makes it possible for small businesses, research centers, and even individuals to take advantage of the technology and experiment with it to innovate. According to Choi:

“At present, only top universities have access to these expensive technologies, and even then, they are located in shared facilities and are not always available.”

Adding further, Choi said:

“We want to democratize the capability of nanoscale 3D printing, and we hope our research opens the door for greater access to this type of process at a low cost.”

This breakthrough has a real potential to help new technologies finally be out of research laboratories and into the world for usage. 

The research certainly has wide application potential, with the researchers saying their technique will be particularly useful in the fields of optics and plasmonics, which require a variety of complex metallic nanostructures.

Other potential areas where it can be used in the future include smaller and more efficient electronic components for smartphones, computers, and wearables. Furthermore, it can help with advanced sensors, actuators, miniature communication systems, biomedical devices like implants & diagnostic devices, small-scale optics for cameras and imaging systems, tiny devices to harvest energy, and the development of new materials with custom properties. 

Nanoscale 3D printing will further help in research and coming up with even more feasible solutions.

Companies Leading Additive Manufacturing

Now, let's take a look at a few companies that are leading the way in Additive Manufacturing:

#1. Stratasys

The US-based 3D printing solutions provider is an international leader in the additive manufacturing industry. Stratasys supplies an array of 3D printers and materials to automotive, healthcare, education, aerospace, and various other industries. The company also has many additive technology patents used to create models, prototypes, manufacturing tools, and production parts.

The company's latest 3D printer, F3300, comes with significant improvements in speed and cost. It offers increased gantry speeds, quicker extrusion rates, and automated calibration to save time and increase throughput. The machine is for end-use part production and can also be used for prototyping.

finviz dynamic chart for  SSYS

With a market cap of $902.6 million, the stocks of Stratasys are currently trading at $13.05, down 8.61% year-to-date (YTD). The company posted a revenue trailing twelve months (TTM) of $630.52 mln while having an EPS (TTM) of -1.61 and P/E (TTM) of -8.10.

#2. 3D Systems

A well-known name in the additive manufacturing industry, 3D Systems offers a wide variety of 3D printing solutions, ranging from hardware and software to materials to industries like healthcare, aerospace, defense, automotive, consumer goods, and general manufacturing. 

3D Systems' technologies include Direct Metal Printing, Selective Laser Sintering, MultiJet Printing, ColorJet Printing, Stereolithography (SLA), and SLA-based bioprinting.

Late last year, the company announced a patient-specific 3D-printed cranial implant being successfully used in a cranioplasty at the University Hospital Basel. The use of 3D-printed cranial implants is expected to have a market size of $2.1 bln by the end of this decade.

finviz dynamic chart for  DDD

With a market cap of $677.845 million, the stock of 3D Systems Corp is currently trading at $5.08, down 20% YTD. The company posted a revenue (TTM) of $505.95 mln while having an EPS (TTM) of -0.74 and P/E (TTM) of -6.85.

#3. GE Additive

A division of tech giant General Electric, GE Additive has a comprehensive lineup of printers, consumable materials, and software solutions to allow companies in different market segments to innovate.

Last month, the company showcased its metal binder jet technology at Europe's largest additive manufacturing (AM) trade show. For this, GE Additive is working with a new industry, medical, to expand its horizons beyond just aerospace. With binder jets, the company aims to provide “a secondary manufacturing method in the event you have a supply chain problem.”

finviz dynamic chart for  GE

With a market cap of $141.4 billion, the stocks of General Electric Co are currently trading at $129.93, up 1.8% YTD. The company posted a revenue (TTM) of $67.95 bln while having an EPS (TTM) of 8 and P/E (TTM) of 16.24. GE also pays a dividend yield of 0.25%.

Final Thoughts

While still in the early stages of research, nanoscale 2D printing and the additive manufacturing landscape are advancing at a rapid pace. Already, as we saw, faster and cheaper printing techniques are being developed that make nanoscale metal printing scalable and commercially viable. 

As new research continues to work on issues like cost and material limitations, we will see new solutions emerge, removing barriers to entry and producing personalized and sustainable product designs. This will lead to the widespread use of techniques in medicine, fashion, consumer products, advanced electronics, and much more, finally increasing the possibility of nano-enabled devices being used in the real world significantly and making 3D printing marketable.

Click here for the list of the ten best additive manufacturing and 3D printing stocks to invest in.

Gaurav started trading cryptocurrencies in 2017 and has fallen in love with the crypto space ever since. His interest in everything crypto turned him into a writer specializing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Soon he found himself working with crypto companies and media outlets. He is also a big-time Batman fan.