3D printed gears

Micro Manufacturing Methods and Applications

BY Steve Melito

This blog is the first in a multi-part blog series sharing the finding of an analysis of the micro manufacturing market with Phil Reeves at Reeves Insights.

Micro manufacturing encompasses many different technologies that can produce small parts with fine features. The “micro” in all of these manufacturing methods refers to their ability to produce 0.5mm to 2mm objects with a resolution of 5µm to 20µm. Examples of micro manufactured devices include mechanical gears, fiber optic alignment grates, catheters, and microfluidic devices.

Today, µ3DP is revolutionizing the design, prototyping and production of certain types of small devices. By understanding the micro manufacturing methods that are available and µ3DP’s value for small plastic parts, engineers can determine when micro 3D printing makes sense. Manufacturers who need to make strategic decisions such as equipment purchases can also consider market trends.

Types of Micro Manufacturing

There are five types of micro manufacturing methods for plastic and non-plastic materials. Within each category, there are various manufacturing methods; however, only some of these methods can be used with plastic materials.

  • Subtractive manufacturing includes micro-mechanical cutting processes such as milling, turning, grinding, and polishing. This category also covers micro electrical discharge machining (micro EDM), laser beam machining, electron beam machining, and photo-chemical machining. For plastics, only milling and turning – types of micro-mechanical cutting processes – and laser beam machining are used.
  • Additive manufacturing (AM) is more than 3D printing. This category includes surface coating with chemical vapor deposition (CVD) or physical vapor deposition (PVD), direct-write processes like ink jet and laser printing, photo-electro-forming, and LIGA, a German acronym for lithography, electroplating, and molding. For plastics micro manufacturing, only 3D printing is used.
  • Mass containing methods include micro casting, micro injection molding, and sintering along with micro forming processes like stamping, extrusion, forging, bending, deep drawing, incremental forming, super plastic forming, and hydro forming. For all plastics, two micro-forming processes (stamping and extrusion) can be used. Micro casting is for thermosetting resins and micro injection molding is for thermoplastics.
  • Joining processes include micro mechanical assembly, laser welding, vacuum soldering, and bonding. Only the first two processes are used to micro manufacture plastics.
  • Hybrid processes range from micro-laser-electrochemical machining (ECM) and LIGA to shape deposition and laser machining, electrochemical fabrication (EFAB), and laser assisted micro-forming. Combined micro machining and casting are also part of this micro manufacturing category. None of these processes are used to make small plastic parts, however.

Market Potential for Micro Injection Molding

Micro injection molding (micro IM) appears to have the greatest market potential of all of the micro manufacturing processes that use plastic materials. By 2025, micro IM is predicted to grow 16.2% in North America, 15.9% in Europe, 16.1% in the Asia Pacific Region, 14.3% in Central and South America, and 14.1%in the Middle East and Africa. While the global market for small plastic parts grows, demand for other plastic micro manufacturing processes is expected to decline, stay the same, or grow more slowly.

How µ3DP Can Disrupt Micro IM for Medical Applications

Although micro injection molding has significant market potential, the lead times and costs associated with tooling are causing manufacturers to explore other micro manufacturing methods. Because it is a form of 3D printing, µ3DP does not require paying for or waiting for tooling. Moreover, micro 3D printing supports engineering and biomedical plastics as well as application-specific plastic resins that are rigid, tough, high-temperature resistant, biocompatible, flexible, or transparent. These plastics include specially formulated liquid polymers and open source materials.

For reusable or long-term medical devices, µ3DP can be used to produce ablation catheters for cardiac rhythm management, audiologic components such as hearing aids, the device bodies of catheters, and heart valves. Micro manufacturing applications for consumable and disposable medical devices include 3D printed ophthalmic components for drug delivery, pupil expanders, and lenses. Additionally, µ3DP can be used to manufacture micro-needles, thin-walled catheter tips, abutments for dental anchors, transdermal patches, life science disposables, and microfluidics.

Within the medical consumables market, µ3DP can produce bioresorbable medical devices like sheaths, tissue anchors, suture screws, pins, and bone screws. There are also applications for micro mechanical devices like gears, gear trains, cantilevers, probes, accelerometers, microfluidic valves, particle filters, micro electronic connectors, and sensors. In addition to fiber optic alignment grates, micro 3D printed optical devices include micro lenses, micro optical trains, and optical element holders.

The Future of Micro Manufacturing

µ3DP with PµSL technology is the only technology in the world that matches micro injection molding in terms of size, resolution, and tolerance. Unlike other additive manufacturing technologies, PµSL can achieve the high resolution, accuracy and precision that is needed for mechanical, optical, and medical devices at the microscale. As engineers compare micro manufacturing methods and companies make strategic decisions about tooling and equipment, Boston Micro Fabrication (BMF) can help. To learn more about µ3DP or to discuss your specific application, contact us.