Modern 3d printer with architectural model

3 and 4D printing is a developing disruptive technology that looks set to transform our socio-economic landscape. We talk to Dr Giacomo Benvenuti, CEO of ABCD Technology Sàrl about 3 and 4D printing, why it’s important, and what new ABCD-led innovations look set to hit the headlines.

In the Sci-Fi series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in all subsequent Trek series, humans had evolved the delivery of their needs using devices called replicators. They could make food, clothing, spare parts, and components out of dissolved matter, that could be made into bigger objects. Replicators were sought after objects, used to restart civilisations after wars or other more natural disasters.

It sounds like a distant dream, doesn’t it, until you realise that we have something similar in our society right now, even if it is much less fantastical. 3D printing is quietly filtering through the world and has the potential to change how we do work, manufacturing, and even art.

Put simply, 3D printing allows virtual designs (which when we view them on screen are 2D) to be printed off in a 3D form. You can print digitally schemas of artwork, spare parts for industrial or medical use, components, instruments, and everyday objects like padlocks or light fittings.

The cost of 3D printers is falling, making them accessible for all kinds of DIY and low capitalised needs. But the technology is still in its early days, and tech companies are working on improvements.

We thought this was pretty exciting, so we decided to approach one of the manufacturers leading the way in 3D printing technology. ABCD Technology Sàrl is a company based in Nyon, Switzerland, which provides disruptive equipment for deposition of complex 3D-shaped multi-element thin films.

So what does that mean? Dr Giacomo Benvenuti, CEO of ABCD Technology Sàrl, gave us some insights into what 3D technology does and why ABCD’s approach will massively improve functionality.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is an additive manufacturing technology, meaning that the object is created with definitive shape and without any material removal (subtractive manufacturing) in a further step.

Additive techniques are a very interesting approach to manufacturing because they allow for fast prototyping or customisation and could lead to more cost-efficient manufacturing in the medium-long run.

They also allow very complex architectures and shapes that cannot be achieved with traditional manufacturing methods. Production can be delocalised to reduce transport costs.

Generally speaking, 3D printing is mainly used to produce macro-objects (sizes from 0.1 mm to several meters) with mechanical functionalities. The preferred materials are polymers, but when material strength or resistance to chemicals or heat is needed, we use metals and ceramics, though the technology is less mature and far more expensive.

How is the technology developing?

The industry is looking to develop the technology to develop higher added value materials.

So one recent development has been electronics circuits in plastic through the deposition of electrically conductive materials.

Manufacturers are gearing up towards 4D printing, which produces materials that can change shape over time. Instead of building static three-dimensional items from layers of plastics or metals, 4-D printing employs dynamic materials that can evolve in response to their environment.

In the long term, many more functional materials will be available enabling light or bio-related properties. Printing of living tissues is another very promising possibility.

Why is miniaturisation important in 3D printing?

Miniaturisation, towards more robust, transportable, and with higher added value, products, has been the real revolution of the last decades.

Microelectronics in the ‘90’s showed, and Moore Law predicted, that the number of transistors in circuit boards per square inch had doubled every two years, and this trend would continue. Miniaturisation has enabled a factor one million ratio improvement between device performances and production costs in about a 30 years period.

Miniaturisation has totally reshaped traditional industries like TV screens (flat panel displays), sensors, light sources (LEDs) or telecom industry in less than a decade.

Making miniaturisation compatible with high value added additive manufacturing is a must and will open huge business opportunities in the near future, probably even larger than the ones achieved today.

ABCD Technology is a recent start up. How did you get going?

In 2006, 3D printing and additive manufacturing techniques were not so hyped as they are today, and not a single investor was ready to go into such a visionary and risky business.

I finally incorporated ABCD Technology in 2006 thanks to two European FP6 funded projects (3D-DEMO and NUOTO) with a grant of €0.5m, match funded by private second job financing.

Despite the small amount of money (it usually needs several tens of millions to bring such technology to the market), we managed to achieve generation-3 commercial equipment ready for R&D.

Several partners involved in the two FP6 projects (and a further one, Pi-Oxides) decided to incorporate a novel company, 3D-Oxides. 3D-Oxides was our first customer.

Since then, ABCD has continually improved the technology, enabling customers to achieve top-level results in their fields of interest.

How is ABCD Technology’s work evolving the field?

ABCD Technology is a company involved in equipment building for the additive manufacturing of oxide thin films. This technology paves the way for 4D printing with sub-micrometer resolution of materials with multi-functional properties (electronic, photonic, magnetic or bio-compatibility among others) that can be modulated over time.

This technology can lead to disruptive devices with performances far beyond today’s state of the art equipment.

ABCD owns an extensive patent portfolio to protect its disruptive innovation. The main equipment assets are fast R&D with greatly improved throughputs to investigate novel nano-materials.

Further, we have the possibility of achieving micro and nano patterned materials with microelectronics industry quality even on very large surfaces (m2) like those required by the glass coatings industry, and four different additive manufacturing complementary processes to address a wide panel of material properties and amazing architectures.

What are ABCD’s plans?

ABCD Technology, in collaboration with its customers, is developing several demonstrators in different verticals.

A first one is related to PC chips based on photonics (light) instead of electronics (electrons). This technology could provide a speed increase in computers of 3 orders of magnitude with a strong reduction of energy consumption.

Another application targeted by another customer is to manufacture bio-scaffolds to grow and differentiate cells. With additional functionalities related to electro or photo-stimulation of cells, or more generally time-tuneable properties of materials, this could pilot cells growth and differentiation to achieve complex in-vitro organs for transplantation or implantable chips in-vivo for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

As a third application, we can also mention a QR-code based on 4D-printed materials (a sort of material properties fingerprint). This development could enable next generation technology for security and traceability in blockchains or within the Internet of Thing (IoT) fields.

I can’t stress enough how important this technology is. Like many other disruptive technologies, 3 and 4D printing will transform how we live and make things. From my standpoint, the future looks very exciting.