tiniest 3D prints

How small can you print? 7 tiniest 3D prints that you can imagine

Do you always need a cap to hide hair fall? Does you car get easily affected by wear and tear? Do you want to travel inside your computer? Some tiniest 3D prints might help you.

The 3D printers which we use always have a minimum structural size that can be printed. But research and exploration in the field has led to rapid development of technologies that can print objects in micro and nano scales. Such dimensions mean that the object is hardly visible to naked eyes. Here is a collection of such tiny 3D prints to make you blink your eyes twice.

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The lost sculptures
London-based artist Jonty Hurwitz created a series of nanoscale 3D sculptures. Capturing 3D renderings of models posing for his sculptures, he got them printed with a Nanoscribe 3D printer. They were that tiny that he had to use an electron microscope to view his prints. At 80 x 100 x 20 microns, his sculpture also got into 2015 Guinness World Record for “The smallest sculpture of a human form”.

TRUST - The nano sculpture Source: Jontyhurwitz
TRUST – The nano sculpture
Source: Jontyhurwitz

But the peculiarity is that he just lost his sculptures after observing their beauty. The slide containing the sculptures was taken out from the electron microscope from one of its engineers, only to realise that they will never find the sculptures again. Nevertheless, the majestic images of the masterpiece stand out to symbolise integration of art with engineering.

New age of spycams
A tiny lens of 100 microns diameter has been printed by scientists at University of Stuttgart, Germany. This enables development of tiny image capturing devices to be used in robotics, surveillance and medicine. They combined three of these lenses to form a ‘pinhead’ device, which can be printed over tip of endoscopes, digital cameras, image sensors or optical fibres. Dr. Timo Gissibl and his colleagues in their paper wrote, “The unprecedented flexibility of our method paves the way towards printed optical miniature instruments such as endoscopes, fibre-imaging systems for cell biology, new illumination systems, miniature optical fibre traps, integrated quantum emitters and detectors, and miniature drones and robots with autonomous vision.” A new tool for the next James Bond?

3D printed 'pinhead' Source: Nature Photonics
3D printed ‘pinhead’
Source: Nature Photonics

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Who said hair only grows naturally
Using a normal 3D printer, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have invented a way to produce hair-like strands, fibres and bristles. They achieved this by moving the print head and object holding the strands sidewise rapidly, so that thin bristle-like structures can be extruded. Using PLA filaments in different colour, they made multi-coloured shock of hair for fantasy creatures. With no special dedicated hardware attachments, it is clear that such thin delicate structures can be printed with the correct calibration of parameters.

Hair printing
Hair printing
Source: The Tartan

But how to slice the hair?
We just saw that hair-like structures can be 3D printed. But the conventional slicing software would not be able to generate a reliable slicing algorithm for such a structure. Hence comes a slicing software called Cilllia, developed by researchers from MIT. The number, density, and size of hairs can be chosen along with the required level of rigidity. They demonstrated the software by printing varying types of hairs of rabbits, hedgehogs, paintbrushes, velcro, etc. They plan to refine the technology and research on identifying means to print on more angular surfaces, which means, it would simulate a human head!

Spiky and soft hair
Spiky and soft hair
Source: MIT

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Micro-drill machine
Lance Abernethy, a maintenance engineer from New Zealand, has built the world’s smallest drilling machine. Using his Ultimaker 2 3D printer after designing in Onshape 3D CAD software, he built the machine of dimensions 13mm length, 7.5mm width and 17mm height. The best part is the twist drill bit, of 0.5mm diameter. Powered using a hearing aid battery and a miniature motor, and wired using a headphone cable, the machine just gets into work to drill miniature holes on soft materials. More such tiny machines are sure to be in his pipeline.

Abernathy's drilling machine
Abernathy’s drilling machine
Source: 3Dprint

Miniature mountains
Researchers at Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland have 3D printed Matterhorn mountains, one of the highest mountains in Europe. Each of these mountains is less than a tenth of a millimetre, simulating the actual 4478 metres mountain range. They demonstrate that such kind of pyramidal structures have technical importance as well. It would reduce a component’s wear and tear during its functional usage. Using the technology called two-photon lithography, further production of such arbitrary complex shaped details with combined technical and aesthetic appeal can be expected.

Matterhorn mountain
Matterhorn mountain
Source: PSI

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3D micro spirals
A new method to print tiny, partly overhanging parts in a single step is developed by the researchers at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Built without support structures or templates even for overhanging , these miniature parts could be used in surgery tools and precision instruments. Luca Hirt, a doctoral student of the university, has developed this technique in which the print head can print even sideways, thereby eliminating the requirement of templates.

Copper micro spiral Source: ETH Zurich
Copper micro spiral
Source: ETH Zurich

The object is printed pixel by pixel and layer by layer, mainly made of copper deposits. A pixel ranges from 800 nanometres to over 5 micrometres, and these individual pixels are fused together to form larger sized objects.

Thus it is evident that 3D printing revolutionises the miniature manufacturing world, not only in terms printing objects for art and fun, but also in technical operations and medical advances. Let’s expect more innovations and developments in other unexplored fields in future.

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