3D Printing Gets Tiny

Using a process akin to electroplating, researchers at the University of Oldenburg have 3D printed structures at the 25 nanometer scale. A human hair, of course, is thousands of time thicker than that. The working medium was a copper salt and a very tiny nozzle. How tiny? As small as 1.6 nanometers. That’s big enough for two copper ions at once.

Tiny nozzles are prone to every 3D printer’s bane: clogged nozzles. To mitigate this, the team built a closed-loop control that measured electrical current between the work area and inside the nozzle. You can read the full paper online.

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Secret Ingredient For 3D-Printed Circuit Traces: Electroplating

Conductive filament exists, but it takes more than that to 3D print something like a circuit board. The main issue is that traces made from conductive filament are basically resistors; they don’t act like wires. [hobochild]’s interesting way around this problem is to use electroplating to coat 3D-printed traces with metal, therefore creating a kind of 3D-printed circuit board. [hobochild] doesn’t yet have a lot of nitty-gritty detail to share, but his process seems fairly clear. (Update: good news! here’s the project page and GitHub repository with more detail.)

The usual problem with electroplating is that the object to be coated needs to be conductive. [hobochild] addresses this by using two different materials to create his test board. The base layer is printed in regular (non-conductive) plastic, and the board’s extra-thick traces are printed in conductive filament. Electroplating takes care of coating the conductive traces, resulting in a pretty good-looking 3D-printed circuit board whose conductors feature actual metal. [hobochild] used conductive filament from Proto-pasta and the board is a proof-of-concept flashing LED circuit. Soldering might be a challenge given the fact that the underlying material is still plastic, but the dual-material print is an interesting angle that even allows for plated vias and through-holes.

We have seen conductive filament used to successfully print workable electrical connections, but applications are limited due to the nature of the filament. Electroplating, a technology accessible to virtually every hacker’s workbench, continues to be applied to 3D printing in interesting ways and might be a way around these limitations.

Can Metal Plated 3D Prints Survive 400,000 Volts?

It appears they can. [Ian Charnas] wanted his very own Thor Hammer. He wasn’t happy to settle on the usual cosplay methods of spray painting over foam and similar flimsy materials. He presents a method for nickel plating onto a 3D printed model, using conductive nickel paint to prepare the plastic surface for plating. In order to reduce the use of hazardous chemistry, he simplifies things to use materials more likely to be found in the kitchen.

As the video after the break shows, [Ian] went through quite a lot of experimentation in order to get to a process that would be acceptable to him. As he says, “after all, if something is worth doing, it’s worth over-doing” which is definitely a good ethos to follow. Its fairly hard to plate metals and get a good finish, and 3D printed objects are by their nature, not terribly smooth. But, the effort was well rewarded, and the results look pretty good to us.

But what about the 400 kV I hear you ask? Well, it wouldn’t be Thor’s hammer, without an ungodly amount of lightning flying around, and since [Ian] is part of a tesla coil orchestra group, which well, it just kinda fell into place. After donning protective chainmail to cover his skin, he walks straight into the firing line of a large pair of musical tesla coils and survives for another day. Kind of makes his earlier escapade with jet-powered roller skates look mundane by comparison.

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3D-Printed Tooling Enables DIY Electrochemical Machining

When it comes to turning a raw block of metal into a useful part, most processes are pretty dramatic. Sharp and tough tools are slammed into raw stock to remove tiny bits at a time, releasing the part trapped within. It doesn’t always have to be quite so violent though, as these experiments in electrochemical machining suggest.

Electrochemical machining, or ECM, is not to be confused with electrical discharge machining, or EDM. While similar, ECM is a much tamer process. Where EDM relies on a powerful electric arc between the tool and the work to erode material in a dielectric fluid, ECM is much more like electrolysis in reverse. In ECM, a workpiece and custom tool are placed in an electrolyte bath and wired to a power source; the workpiece is the anode while the tool is the cathode, and the flow of charged electrolyte through the tool ionizes the workpiece, slowly eroding it.

The trick — and expense — of ECM is generally in making the tooling, which can be extremely complicated. For his experiments, [Amos] took the shortcut of 3D-printing his tool — he chose [Suzanne] the Blender monkey — and then copper plating it, to make it conductive. Attached to the remains of a RepRap for Z-axis control and kitted out with tanks and pumps to keep the electrolyte flowing, the rig worked surprisingly well, leaving a recognizably simian faceprint on a block of steel.

[Amos] admits the setup is far from optimized; the loop controlling the distance between workpiece and tool isn’t closed yet, for instance. Still, for initial experiments, the results are very encouraging, and we like the idea of 3D-printing tools for this process. Given his previous success straightening his own teeth or 3D-printing glass, we expect he’ll get this fully sorted soon enough.

Electroplating 3D Printed Parts For Great Strength

Resin 3D printers have a significant advantage over filament printers in that they are able to print smaller parts with more fine detail. The main downside is that the resin parts aren’t typically as strong or durable as their filament counterparts. For this reason they’re often used more for small models than for working parts, but [Breaking Taps] wanted to try and improve on the strength of these builds buy adding metal to them through electroplating.

Both copper and nickel coatings are used for these test setups, each with different effects to the resin prints. The nickel adds a dramatic amount of stiffness and the copper seems to increase the amount of strain that the resin part can tolerate — although [Breaking Taps] discusses some issues with this result.

While the results of electroplating resin are encouraging, he notes that it is a cumbersome process. It’s a multi-step ordeal to paint the resin with a special paint which helps the metal to adhere, and then electroplate it. It’s also difficult to ensure an even coating of metal on more complex prints than on the simpler samples he uses in this video.

After everything is said and done, however, if a working part needs to be smaller than a filament printer can produce or needs finer detail, this is a pretty handy way of adding more strength or stiffness to these parts. There’s still some investigating to be done, though, as electroplated filament prints are difficult to test with his setup, but it does show promise. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to print with this amount of precision using metal directly rather than coating plastic with it.

Thanks to [smellsofbikes] for the tip!

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A Hair-Raising Twist On Infinity Mirrors

Just when we thought we’d seen it all in the infinity mirror department, [FieldCrafting] blazed a tiny, shiny new trail with their electroplated infinity mirror hair pin. We’d sure like to stick this in our French twist. Fortunately, [FieldCrafting] provided step-by-step instructions for everything from the 3D printing to the copper electroplating to the mirror film and circuitry application.

And what tiny circuitry it is! This pin is powered by a coin cell and even has a micro slider switch to conserve it. The stick parts are a pair of knitting needles, which is a great idea — they’re pointy enough to get through hair, but not so pointy that they hurt.

[FieldCrafting] was planning to solder 1206 LEDs to copper tape and line the cavity with it, but somehow the CAD file ended up with 0603, so there wasn’t enough space for two tape traces. We think it’s probably for the better — [FieldCrafting]’s solution was to use two-conductor wire, strategically stripped, which seems a lot less fiddly than trying to keep two bare tape traces separated and passing pixies.

Don’t have enough hair for one of these? Surely you could use some handsome infinity coasters to round out that home bar setup.

Low Cost Metal 3D Printing By Electrochemistry

[Billy Wu] has been writing for a few years about electrochemical 3D printing systems that can handle metal. He’s recently produced a video that you can see below about the process. Usually, printing in metal means having a high-powered laser and great expense. [Wu’s] technique is an extension of electroplating.

Boiling down the gist of the process, the print head is a syringe full of electroplating solution. Instead of plating a large object, you essentially electroplate on tiny areas. The process is relatively slow and if you speed it up too much, the result will have undesirable properties. But there are some mind-bending options here. By using print heads with different electrolytes, you can print using different metals. For example, the video shows structures made of both copper and nickel. You can also reverse the current and remove metal instead of depositing it.

This looks like something you could pretty readily replicate in a garage. Electroplating is well-understood and the 3D motion parts could be a hacked 3D printer. Sure, the result is slow but, after all, slow is a relative term. You might not mind taking a few days to print a metal object compared to the cost and trouble of creating it in other ways. Of course, since this is copper, we also have visions of printing circuit board traces on a substrate. We imagine you’d have to coat the board with something to make it conductive and then remove that after all the copper was in place. When you build this, be sure to tell us about it.

We’ve seen electroplating pens before and that’s really similar to this idea. Of course, you can also make your 3D prints conductive and plate them which is probably faster but isn’t really fully metal.

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