A Lithuanian company called Neurotechnology has developed a device they are calling an ultrasonic 3D printer. Built by the firm’s Ultrasound Research Group, it is just a prototype at this stage and is only capable of assembling printed circuit board (PCB) electronics. In fact, it is less 3D printer and more assembler, but the researchers believe the technology is capable of fabricating anything you can think of just from raw materials. Think "primitive Star Trek replicator" and you are getting the right idea.
"Just imagine, your smartphone could be printed with a single device. All the electronics, the casing, sockets, everything could be done with a single printer."
The device uses an array of ultrasonic transducers to manipulate components or materials. Each transducer is individually controlled by a computer and can create “pressure profiles” capable of moving and rotating objects within the array. The objects do not even have to be solid. The printer can move water, molten plastic or metal without touching the material. This is where the idea of full fabrication comes into play. If the device can manipulate melted plastic precisely, it could theoretically form it into a template for something like a smartphone casing.
Research engineer Dr. Osvaldas Putkis, the project lead says, “Ultrasonic manipulation can handle a very large range of different materials, including metals, plastics, and even liquids.”
As you can see in the video (top), the demonstration prototype is capable of precisely moving objects smaller than a grain of rice. Dr. Putkis says the precision of the machine is on the scale of microns. For example, at 40kHz the device can work within tens of microns. At higher frequencies, it is even more precise.
“Such technology would enable having printers that are capable of printing virtually everything.”
Putkis demonstrated the prototype’s capabilities by constructing a simple working circuit with a couple of resistors and a light emitting diode on a piece of PCB. The device uses a camera to track the position of the components. The ultrasonic transducers rotate (if necessary) and move the parts into the proper position. Then a laser is used to solder the components into place. All of this occurs with no external contact.
Assembling objects this way offers several advantages, especially with electronics. For one, electrostatic discharge is of no concern, so sensitive circuitry is safe. Physical damage from grasping is also eliminated. The difficulty of handling very small and oddly shaped components becomes a piece of cake when the computer can quickly place objects less than a millimeter in size in a defined orientation.
As it is currently, the ultrasonic 3D printer is clearly not capable of assembling anything as complex as a smartphone, even if it had all the components. The prototype is just a proof of concept, but the group wants to develop the technology further. It is currently seeking out other companies that are interested in helping to further the design and application of the device. It might be a while before we see anything close to a Star Trek replicator in out homes, but the tech certainly has some practical industrial applications that could be achieved before then.