Direct-write technologies can form a low-cost alternative approach to create interconnects by eliminating mask and etch costs as well as by being more efficient at low area coverage and high aspect ratio.
Inkjet printing can be used in electronics packaging as interconnections between electronic components. Conductive inks and dielectric inks are used when substituting traditional printed circuit board (PCB) with inkjet-printed interconnections. Although both organic and inorganic inks can be used for conductive purposes, at the moment inorganic inks offer better conductivity. Inorganic ink consists of metal nanoparticles and organic solvent which make the ink printable.
Aerosol Jet Printing is another material deposition technology for printed electronics. The Aerosol Jet process begins with atomization of an ink, which can be heated up to 80°C, producing droplets on the order of one to two microns in diameter. The atomized droplets are entrained in a gas stream and delivered to the print head. Here, an annular flow of clean gas is introduced around the aerosol stream to focus the droplets into a tightly collimated beam of material. The combined gas streams exit the print head through a converging nozzle that compresses the aerosol stream to a diameter as small as 10microns.
The jet of droplets exits the print head at high velocity (~50 meters/second) and impinges upon the substrate. Electrical interconnects, passive and active components are formed by moving the print head, equipped with a mechanical stop/start shutter, relative to the substrate. The resulting patterns can have features ranging from 10 microns wide, with layer thicknesses from 10’s of nanometers to >10 microns. A wide nozzle print head enables efficient patterning of millimeter size electronic features and surface coating applications. All printing occurs without the use of vacuum or pressure chambers and at room temperature. The high exit velocity of the jet enables a relatively large separation between the print head and the substrate, typically 2-5mm. The droplets remain tightly focused over this distance, resulting in the ability to print conformal patterns over three dimensional substrates. Despite the high velocity, the printing process is gentle; substrate damage does not occur and there is generally no splatter or overspray from the droplets. Once patterning is complete, the printed ink typically requires post treatment to attain final electrical and mechanical properties.
3D MID technology (Moulded Interconnect Devices) is another way to create an electrical interconnect inside a moulded plastic housing. An electrical conductive circuit is created by means of two-shot moulding or by laser activation patterning. After this step the structures get metallized through an electroless plating process and become conductive. After the circuitry is created the conventional SMT machines (stencil printing, pick & place and reflow ovens) can make sure that components are added to the part.
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Three dimensional printing, or additive manufacturing, goes beyond the capability of printing in the traditional sense of ink on paper, allowing for 3D objects to be physically printed before your very eyes. 3D printers allow you to create prototypes, models and products out of materials such as plastics and metals. The printers do this by creating layer upon layer of your design in your chosen material until the final product is formed. 3D printing allows companies and individuals to rapidly prototype ideas for new parts or products and also promises to cut down costs on the creation of products through savings in supply-chains, product waste and storage.
The benefits of 3D printing are likely to revolutionise many industries. The automotive and aerospace industries benefit from much shorter lead times than with associated traditional engineering methods such as casting or machining, allowing for much faster development and testing of components. In the future, it may even be possible for large components or even entire cars to be entirely 3D printed, as recently demonstrated by Local Motors at the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, USA.
The ability to print electronic circuitry points to a future of consumers being able to 3D print electronic consumer products such as mobile phones, or the possibility of producing highly customized products based on individual consumer preferences. Google has recently partnered with 3D Systems to develop Project ARA, a modular phone which will allow customised 3D printed personalised features, which could point to a future of consumer electronics highly shaped by 3D printing.
The food industry is also set for a revolution thanks to 3D printing. NASA has invested in the technology in the hope that one day its astronauts will be able to print their food whilst in space. Whilst printers currently exist that allow for 3D creations of foodstuff such as chocolate and pasta, 3D printing may in the future be able to allow fine control of the nutritional content of many types of food, which in turn could help tackle several health problems such as obesity and diabetes or even world hunger.
Healthcare is also set to benefit hugely from developments in 3D printing. 3D printing has already found use in preparing dental prosthetics, hearing aids and bespoke scaffolding for joint replacement and reconstructive cosmetic surgeries. The promise of printing functional human tissues could lead the way for 3D printing organs such as kidneys to help test new drugs and even directly replace failing organs.
Studying a degree in electronic engineering or mechatronics will allow you to apply yourself to the integration of electronic components and circuitry in 3D printed components, or even study the electronics and robotics that will control the manufacturing processes of the future.
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