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Fit sensors created with 3D printing

pte20221004003 research/development, technology/digitization

Swedish researchers say the new printing technology is a “game changer” for the production of micro-electromechanical systems

Robots: sensors for future machines could be produced more efficiently (Photo: pixabay.de/TheDigitalArtist)

Robots: sensors for future machines could be produced more efficiently (Photo: pixabay.de/TheDigitalArtist)

Stockholm (pte003/04.10.2022/06:10) –

With the newly developed 3D printing process, it will soon be possible to produce custom sensors for robots, pacemakers, and other devices. These devices can be used to inexpensively build customized electronic “machines” the size of insects that enable new applications in robotics, medical devices and other fields. The method can be used by researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) is said to be fundamentally transforming the manufacture of chip-based microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Details can be found in “Nature Microsystems & Nanoengineering”.

Significantly lower costs

These small machines are used in large quantities for many electronic products, including smartphones and cars, and ensure accurate positioning. However, for the specialized manufacture of sensors in smaller quantities, such as vibration sensors for industrial machinery, MES technologies require costly customization. Frank Nicklaus, KTH Research Director, sees the new 3D printing technology as a way to circumvent the production limitations of traditional microelectromechanical systems.

“The costs of developing the manufacturing process and optimizing the device design cannot be carried over to lower production volumes,” says Nicklaus. As a result, engineers will be faced with the choice of taking suboptimal MEMS components off the shelves or uneconomic start-up costs. Other low-volume products that could benefit from the new technology include motion and vibration control units for robots, industrial tools, and wind turbines.

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Shadow masking has been used

KTH researchers used two-photon polymerization for the 3D printing process. This allows high-resolution objects a few hundred nanometers in size, which, however, do not have a sensing function. To produce transducer elements, experts used a technique called shadow masking, which works in a similar way to a stencil. The T-shaped cross-section features, which act like parachutes, can be fabricated on a 3D-printed structure. Then metal is applied from above so that the sides of the T-shaped structures are not coated with metal. Therefore, the metal at the top of the “T” is electrically isolated from the rest of the structure.

Using this method, about ten custom MEMS accelerometers can be fabricated within a few hours using relatively inexpensive commercial fabrication tools. “This method can be used in an economically feasible way to model the hardware of micro-electromechanical systems and to fabricate small and medium-sized assemblies of tens of thousands to a few thousand MEMS sensors per year,” says Nicklaus. “This has not previously been possible because start-up costs for a MEMS product using conventional semiconductor technology run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and lead times of several months or more.”

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