WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Today’s 3D printers can print increasingly complex components but they still need to be sent elsewhere to be assembled into finished products, this new ultrasonic manipulation technique means products can be printed and assembled all within the same printer.
3D Printing is an exciting technology. It’s already revolutionising the world of manufacturing, where it’s being used to manufacture everything from cities and jet engines to human skin and even the fundamental building blocks of computing, transistors, on demand, but, as it works today, it’s still only used to fabricate individual components that are then transported somewhere else to be assembled, and not complete, ready to go, functional objects and products. But that could be about to change thanks to a new emerging technology, and ironically it’s a technology that’s not too far removed from some of the tractor beam style technologies I’ve talked about before. Furthermore, it could also help bring my idea of a robot that self-evolves and then 3D, or 4D prints, assembles and walks out of the printer all by itself to life – the next step on from this Norwegian self-evolving, self-printing robot that people who attend my presentations are seeing more and more of these days.
Last week a company called Neurotechnology Group based in Lithuania broke cover and announced they’ve managed to turn 3D printing into an even more powerful technology, and it’s all thanks to a new 3D printing process that can print, and then, using ultrasound waves, manipulate and position those components in the printer without them ever having to leave it. One possible application, among billions, could be using the new technology to print smartphone components and then manipulate and assemble them together into a working smartphone that’s ready to work as soon as it leaves the printer, and while that vision might sound a stretch it’s not as far as a stretch as you might think.
“Neurotechnology’s core business is in the fields of biometry, computer vision and AI, and we are always looking for opportunities to research and develop new technologies that sometimes can be outside the main company’s focus,” said Osvaldas Putkis, Head of Engineering at the firm, “ultrasonic manipulation seemed an exciting research area with an unused potential.”
Ultrasonic manipulation is as straight forward as it sounds – using ultrasonic waves to grab and move objects around a space. Traditionally, according to Putkis, most of the research and development in ultrasonic manipulation has been focused on manipulating liquid media “for cell sorting, cell patterning, [and] single cell manipulation,” meanwhile applied research on manipulation in air, said Putkis, “concentrates on containerless processing and analysis of chemical substances by levitating the samples.”
The company developed their first working 3D printer prototype last June and they released some accompanying footage that you can see below. The process uses a computer with machine vision and an array of ultrasonic transducers, each of which can be controlled individually to grab, move and rotate components by changing the ultrasonic waves they emit.
Using Ultrasound To Manipulate 3D Printed Components
In the demonstration the system was set up to position and solder electronic components on a Printed Circuit Board (PCB), and the soldering was performed using an on board laser that fused the pieces onto the PCB. As you can see there’s no physical contact made with the objects being moved and soldered and that opens up a whole new revolutionary field of opportunity.
“Ultrasonic manipulation can handle a very large range of different materials, including metals, plastics and even liquids,” said Putkis, “not only can it manipulate material particles, it can also handle components of various shapes and sizes. Other non-contact methods, like the ones based on magnetic or electrostatic forces, can’t offer such versatility.”
This range of material manipulation now means that the technology can print components and products that have a variety of shapes and mechanical properties, including liquids, such as conductive ink, and solids, like electronic components, and elements can range from a couple of millimeters in size to submillimeter particles. Furthermore ultrasonic manipulation can do all of this without causing any damage to the elements or introducing dangerous electrostatic forces into the process that could destroy any sensitive electronic components.
By altering the ultrasonic profile of the process using 40 KHz ultrasound waves the team were able to position objects with an accuracy of tens of microns, and using higher ultrasound frequencies they were able to make that even more precise.
Putkis goes on to explain that there may be weight restrictions with the ultrasonic transducers, but that this may not always be the case when the density of the elements is taken into consideration.
“Particle dimensions should be in a sub-wavelength region of the ultrasonic waves used,” he said, “and in terms of weight, it is usually the density of the material that is the determining factor. You will need to create very similar pressure amplitude in order to levitate a 1mm diameter or a 2mm diameter plastic sphere. While the gravity force is bigger for a larger sphere, a larger sphere also has a larger surface area, increasing pressure force respectively. With our semi-sphere levitator shown in the video, we can levitate materials as dense as soldering metal.”
The technology is also already fairly automated. The camera is capable of determining the PCB’s position and orientation, making it possible to know where a component should be positioned., and while the circuits used in the company’s demonstration are not overly complex and do not have many elements it’s clear that this is going to be a technology to watch.
At the moment the system can only assemble simple electronics and in the future the company intends to expand the platform, but while we might still arguably a decade away from being able to 3D print and then assemble a working smartphone in situ we can now see it’s possible, and when it comes to technology that glimmer of light is all we need.