Robotics is one area where small volumes of advanced sensors, MEMS, can now be produced with 3D printing. (Credit: David Callahan)

A newly developed 3D printing technique could be used to cost-effectively produce customized electronic “machines” the size of insects, enabling advanced applications in robotics, medical devices, and others.

The breakthrough is seen as a potential game-changer for manufacturing chip-based microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). These mini machines are mass-produced in large volumes for hundreds of electronic products.

The researchers built on a process called two-photon polymerization, which can produce high resolution objects as small as few hundreds of nanometers in size, but not capable of sensing functionality. To form the transducing elements, the method uses a technique called shadow-masking, which works something like a stencil.

On the 3D-printed structure they fabricate features with a T-shaped cross-section, which work like umbrellas. They then deposit metal from above, and as a result, the sides of the T-shaped features are not coated with the metal. This means the metal on the top of the T is electrically isolated from the rest of the structure.