World’s first chip-based 3D printer is smaller than a coin — benefits from having no moving parts

3D printing has made manufacturing more affordable, especially for low-volume production. However, 3D printers are often huge and heavy devices that need a stable platform to work properly — until now. MIT News reports that its researchers have worked closely with a team from the University of Texas at Austin to create a prototype 3D printer that is smaller than a coin.

This photonic chip focuses its beam into a resin well that rapidly cures when it’s hit by a particular wavelength of light emitted from the chip. The palm-sized 3D printer also saves space by eschewing moving parts — instead of using arms and motors to change the beam’s focal point, the prototype uses tiny optical antennas to move it around and create the desired shape.

If the team is successful in turning this concept into a viable product, it could change the face of instant manufacturing. The portability and speed of this palm-sized printer could allow anyone — engineers, doctors, or even first responders — to create solutions on the fly without needing to lug around a big and heavy device.

For example, an orthopedic surgeon could bring a 3D scanner into the operating theater and scan a patient’s broken bones. From there, they could bring in a biomedical engineer to craft a custom bone implant to help fractures heal and then print it with the portable 3D printer using a biomedical resin.

Alternatively, this small 3D printer would be much easier to bring on the Artemis moon exploration program, especially as it is lighter and more compact than other alternatives. It could then be useful for creating tools that the crew will need on the fly.

These are just some of the exciting possibilities that this 3D printing concept brings to the table. According to MIT Professor Jelena Notaros, “This system is completely rethinking what a 3D printer is. It is no longer a big box sitting on a bench in a lab creating objects, but something that is handheld and portable. It is exciting to think about the new applications that could come out of this and how the field of 3D printing could change.” 

3D printing has quickly changed over the years since it was first introduced. Today, we are getting metal 3D printers in the International Space Station that can print tools and parts needed for moon and Mars missions, as well as cheap $77 AliExpress 3D printers that let you start making your own builds at a fraction of the cost. We’ve even seen affordable new 3D printers that are large enough to print a small child. If this project makes it to retail, then, soon enough, we’ll have a 3D printer you can fit in your pocket.