Microforming vs. Microscale 3D Printing

Microforming is a microfabrication method for producing very small metallic parts with fine features. Microscale 3D printing can also produce parts like this, but from either metallic or non-metallic materials, depending on the printer technology. For example, projection micro stereolithography (PµSL) from Boston Microfabrication (BMF) is a form of microscale 3D printing that supports the use of plastics, ceramics, hydrogels, and composite resins that contain ceramic or metal particles. To impart aesthetic or functional properties, PµSL plastic parts can also be metal-plated.

Microforming and microscale 3D printing differ in terms of the materials they support, but the differences don’t end there. Typically, microforming is used for high-volume production. By contrast, microscale 3D printing is used for prototyping and lower-volume runs. There are also some other important differences to consider, along with a few similarities between these two micromanufacturing processes. This article briefly explains how each process works and their relative advantages. Depending on your application there may be a role for either – or both – of these processes.

Metal Plated Micro 3D Printed Part

How does microforming work?

Microforming is a type of metal forming, a primary manufacturing process that includes drawing, forging, rolling, and bending. It’s also a type of ultrasonic metal forming, which uses ultrasonic vibrations to impart advantages such as increased production speeds, less tool wear, and better surface finish. Forming, ultrasonic metal forming, and microforming all depend on material deformation, but only microforming works at the microscale rather than the macroscale. There is also a version of microforming, pulsed-current microforming, that applies electric current to thin-walled parts.

How does microscale 3D printing with PµSL technology work?

BMF’s 3D printers use PµSL technology, a form of stereolithography (SLA) that incorporates a DLP light engine, precision optics, motion control, and advanced software. SLA produces parts in layers using a photochemical process. When a photosensitive liquid resin is exposed to light, polymeric cross-linking and solidification occurs. With PµSL technology, a flash of ultraviolet light (UV) causes the rapid photopolymerization of an entire layer of resin, supporting continuous exposure for faster processing.

Microscale 3D Printing with PµSL Technology

What are the advantages and disadvantages of microforming?

Microforming is useful for mass-producing very small metal parts with fine features. Because of its support for high-volume production, it is used instead of conventional manufacturing rather than microscale 3D printing. The deformation and failure modes of microformed materials are not well-understood, however, and their behavior differs significantly from that of materials used in conventional forming operations. Microforming may also require sequential processes (i.e., progressive microforming), which adds time and tooling costs to projects. By contrast, microscale 3D printing is tool-less and creates all the part features.

How are microforming and microscale 3D printing similar?

The “micro” in microforming and microscale 3D printing refers to how these processes can produce parts with dimensions less than 1 millimeter (mm). Both microfabrication processes can produce many of the same types of parts, and for some of the same types of applications. In addition, microforming and microscale 3D printing can both produce very small parts with low minimum feature sizes that are measured in microns (µm) and that have a high degree of resolution.

High Resolution Microscale Parts

How are these two micromanufacturing techniques different?

Microforming is a type of subtractive manufacturing and microscale 3D printing is a type of additive manufacturing. In other words, microforming removes material to form parts and microscale 3D printing adds material layer by layer. These aren’t the only differences, but the distinction between additive and subtractive manufacturing is a good starting point.

Before microforming even begins, a stock material such as a metal foil or sheet is cut to size. Tooling such as diamond dies are used during microforming, and subsequent operations such as micromachining may be required to create part features. By contrast, microscale 3D printing with PµSL technology doesn’t require dies or post-production machining. It uses liquid polymer resins instead of solid metal materials and provides greater design freedom for intricate 3D geometries.

What are some microformed parts and some microforming applications?

Microforming is used to produce very small metallic components for medical devices, micro-electrical mechanical systems (MEMS), electronics, biotechnology applications, and optical devices. Examples of microformed metal parts include miniature screws, micro gears, micro pins, chip lead frames, contact springs, sockets, micro turbines, micro shafts, and IC sockets. Microformed parts are also used in computers and smartphones.

What are some applications and advantages of microscale 3D printing?

Microscale 3D printing with PµSL technology can be used to produce some of the same types of parts for medical devices, electronics, and MEMS devices. Yet, PµSL 3D printing is also used with microfluidics devices and in education and research. Medical devices can use BMF’s biocompatible polymers, and electronic components can use photopolymer resins with high heat resistance. A microfluidic device like a laboratory on a chip (LOC) can use a polymer with good biochemical performance instead.

Micro 3D Printed Microfluidic Device

Where is there more information about microscale 3D printing?

Introduction to 3D Printing with PµSL, a downloadable white paper from Boston Microfabrication (BMF), describes how this form of microscale 3D printing works and provides additional information about its advantages and applications. The BMF website also lists available 3D printing materials, examines PµSL applications, and provides specifications for BMF’s line of ultra-high resolution 3D printers.

For more information about microscale 3D printing with PµSL technology, contact BMF.