March 6, 2013 at 7:51 PM ET
It's not just cars, prosthetics and guns that can be 3-D printed — even things smaller than you can see are benefiting from the new technology. This new Nanoscribe device can print them smaller than ever, and faster than ever.
The device works more or less how larger 3-D printers work, adding layer upon layer of material until a structure is complete, a bit like putting something together with tiny LEGO bricks. But even the most precise of those printers wouldn't even come close to making things on the nanometer scale that Nanoscribe's device does.
While printers like the MakerBot Replicator actually lay down material with a mechanical tip, the Nanoscribe uses lasers to fuse a light-sensitive material into a solid state. Its incredibly precise near-infrared laser can create structures just 30 nanometers across. Here's a video of the process in action:
To give you an idea of the scale, a human red blood cell is about 8 micrometers across — 8000 nanometers. The Nanoscribe could knit a sweater for it.
But perhaps most importantly, it could do so quickly. Existing nano-level printing can take quite some time, owing to how precise and careful the machine's movements have to be. But by bouncing the laser off a tiny mirror and just moving the mirror, they've managed to speed up the process by a factor of 100.
This means that the many intricate and useful structures that can be printed with a Nanoscribe can be done on site with little waiting: No need to send an order in to a lab and wait five hours for a new batch of microneedles to arrive; five minutes is all you need. And refining designs will be easier, too, with minutes between iterations instead of hours or days.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.