Using a table-top-sized printer, product developers may now be able to build printed circuit boards for devices ranging from cell phone displays to RFID antennae to solar cells.
The new technique, developed by Santa Clara-based Dimatix, Inc, builds circuits a drop at a time by using a piezoelectric print head to dispense liquid silver, nickel, gold or a variety of semiconductor materials onto an electronic substrate. Because it eliminates masking and etching from the traditional electronic manufacturing process and replaces those steps with simple deposition procedure, Dimatix executives say it could enable design engineers to dramatically cut costs on certain projects.
"If every circuit you make is different, or if you have a very complicated circuit that causes masking to be expensive, then this ink jet method is a viable way to build your circuits," notes Martin Schoeppler, vice president of corporate strategic business development for Dimatix. "Here, there is no etching and no 'subtraction' steps."
The key to the new process is Dimatix's creation of the ink jet printer, known as the DMP-2800, which deposits the nano-droplets onto an electronic substrate. The printer also uses a MEMS-based cartridge developed by Dimatix. In the past, ink jet printers could not have been used for such depositions because the heat from a conventional ink jet unit would have destroyed metals or organic materials. Dimatix engineers solved that problem by re-engineering ink jet print heads to use specialized nozzles, pumping chambers and acoustic wave membranes.
Ultimately, the company's executives hope that their new process will be usable in complicated electronics projects that require numerous masking steps, or in situations where construction of prototype printed circuit boards are called for. In both cases, designers could save money by eliminating the need for expensive photomasks.
The company is eyeing a variety of applications, including solar cells, keyboards, light-emitting surfaces, smart cards, ID tags, RFID components, and flexible displays for laptops, cell phones, and handheld games.
"Display companies have publicly announced that they are counting on ink jet technology to replace their current manufacturing methods because it lowers their costs and gives them better precision," Schoeppler says.
Schoeppler says that universities, laboratories, and start-up companies working on application of nano-materials are also potential users of the technology, along with firms that are working toward the Holy Grail of the one-cent RFID tag.
At $30,000 apiece, Schoeppler argues that the DMP-2800 is a bargain when compared to highly complicated masking and etching processes, and is easier to apply. "You fill your cartridge and plug it into your printer," he says. "And you're ready to make an electronic circuit."