Meet the Researcher: Anne Plochowietz Shares Some Insights on PARC’s Micro Assembler Printer

Anne Plochowietz is a Researcher at PARC, developing new high-throughput microsystems technologies for manipulating and analyzing nano- and micro-objects. She is leveraging scalable optical technologies for micro-assembly, biomedical, and novel printing applications.

Anne, please tell us about your work at PARC.

I’m a member of the Research staff in the Electronic Materials and Devices Lab at PARC. I completed my year and a half stint as a post-doc, and I’m now working in the Optical and Mechanical Microsystems group with Eugene Chow.

During my undergraduate and graduate years, I studied physics and earned a Ph.D. in biophysics from Oxford, where we used advanced high-resolution fluorescence microscopy techniques to look at individual molecular machines inside cells (e.g., proteins and DNA-protein interactions). I was able to transfer my data analysis and single-particle tracking tools from the single-cell environment to the Micro Assembler world at PARC. Here, we are using an optically addressable 2-D array of tiny electrodes (about 10 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair) to manipulate tiny objects on a few micron to hundreds of micron level using electromagnetic fields. Essentially, we are developing a printer technology where we can manipulate very small micron-sized objects with very high precision in terms of orientation and positioning, and transfer them to a final substrate.

Micro-object assemblies from PARC’s Micro Assembler Printer:
10 µm beads (left), and 10 µm chips (right)

Are there technologies similar to the Micro Assembler Printer currently on the market?

There are only a few technologies, aside from our Micro Assembler that can easily manipulate and orient such small micron-sized objects. Existing robotic pick-and-place techniques can handle objects only as small as 100 microns in size and rely on slow mechanical scanning, so they scale very poorly for throughput. Rubber stamps can pickup objects in parallel but require special pre-processing and also rely on slow mechanical scanning.  Our Micro Assembler Printer can simultaneously manipulate thousands of small micron-sized objects at a time with high precision, and scales well for throughput.  

As objects get smaller down to nanoscale size, diffusion starts to take over and becomes the major driver for self-assembly processes. We are trying to come up with a high-throughput manufacturing technology for the mesoscale (this in-between phase), where assembly is not yet diffusion-driven. However, it is difficult to mechanically hold onto and translate particles to defined targets.

What are some practical applications for PARC’s Micro Assembler Printer?

MicroLED display technology is a key target application due to the rising demand for smaller and more efficient LED chips for displays used in smartphones and TVs. Currently pick-and-place robotic tools are used to assemble large MiniLED TV displays, which takes a long time and is also very expensive from a materials standpoint. Unlike other approaches for LED display, our approach can handle smaller chips (which are cheaper), enable higher throughput, sort out the bad chips, and readily include other chips like sensors and integrated circuits for more functionality. Another key application is the Internet of Things (IoT), where we can enable a unique combination of low cost and modular design with chiplet libraries. Other potential applications include lighting, signage, sensor arrays, and other integrated circuit-based electronics applications.

There are also applications in materials where I believe our Micro Assembler Printer can be very useful. Our Micro Assembler Printer can manipulate heterogenous sets of particles such as metals, dielectrics, polymers, and ceramics. For instance, you can precisely assemble and screen metamaterials or any type of composite materials to create unique structural and functional properties that don’t exist in nature.

What inspired you to pursue a career in research and science?

Growing up in Germany, I was always interested in math and science. Throughout my high school years, I attended a boarding school with a curriculum focused on the natural sciences. At the age of sixteen, I enrolled in a prestigious youth science competition called Jugend forscht and advanced to the national level, where I had the opportunity to travel abroad and present my project to various academic and industry panels. In addition to winning several awards, I learned how research could be applied to practical, real-world applications – the same approach that we take here at PARC. 

What other field (scientific or not) could you imagine yourself working in?

I can imagine taking on scientific leadership roles to influence stakeholders and programmatically outline research portfolios. I like to strategize research projects from early ideation to system development, and evaluate their risks and potential to disrupt industries. I can envision myself working in such strategic scientific roles and shaping the R&D portfolio of commercial clients, corporate partners, or government agencies. 

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I really enjoy playing sports, especially soccer! 

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