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The Road to 3D-Printed Electronics Will Go Through Integration with 3D-Printed Structures

The Road to 3D-Printed Electronics Will Go Through Integration with 3D-Printed Structures

With the recent award of the $75 million grant for establishing the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute as part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, we can expect the development of a roadmap toward high-volume manufacturing and deployment of products leveraging a more widespread use of flexible substrates. This coincides well with 3D printing's ascent from being a process that predominantly served as a prototyping tool to being utilized for delivering production solutions.

Applications where the needs for production volume and production speed could be matched and where 3D printing brings unmatched advantages over traditional manufacturing process in terms of design complexity are growingly used, i.e., tooling fixtures, aircraft parts, and dental applications. While these applications slowly begin to become common, a roadmap to integrate electronic structures, e.g., sensors (strain gages, temperature or deformation), in the various 3D-printing processes will only augment the growth of both technologies.

This integration initially can be just adding sensors that are manufactured discretely in separate processes, either on ceramic or flexible substrates. Then, as materials and processes mature, there can be an integrated step within the 3D-printing process itself. However, this evolution will not happen overnight, needing to go through careful evaluation of materials, characterization of design and development, and deployment of manufacturing and test processes.

When, over the past year, we looked at a test platform for integrating a 3D-printed antenna on a 3D-printed cellphone cover, we went through a detailed and systematic way of developing the solution. The cellphone cover is a great test vehicle, where we could easily benchmark existing processes of integrating antennas, i.e., molded interconnect process or etched stamped antennas on injection-molded covers, against 3D-printed covers and antennas.

Dozens of steps were carefully taken in order to determine if the technology is suitable for a particular application. For example, we started with the technology landscape, detailing what exists currently, and then proceeded to select the appropriate vendors for materials, back cover manufacturing, and antenna printing. This was followed by materials characterization, using simple structures and simultaneously defining a proper benchmark for printed antenna comparisons.

A 3D-printed RF test fixture was created so that we could test both the commercial and existing covers under a consistent and proper RF test environment. The numbers were benchmarked against numerical electromagnetic simulation while at the same time dealing with CAD file formats and file processing. The baseline efforts were then followed by measurements on the 3D-printed RF test fixture with different cover materials and printing methods, and then followed by experiences with different antenna materials and printing methods.

Once the baseline was established, we began to consider the application of the body of knowledge we developed in this effort toward commercial applications. That way, we can decide between the integration of printed electronics on traditional or flexible substrates like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) on 3D-printed surfaces with the possibility of directly printing electronics on 3D structures. Whether these processes get deployed on commercial products depends on whether the final outcomes of the case-by-case technical and commercial analysis allows enhancements to specific product value as accepted by customers, i.e., quality, cost, availability, and reliability.

Girish Wable will be part of the conference program at Design & Manufacturing Minneapolis, a Design News event at the Minneapolis Convention Center, Nov. 4-5. His session will be "The Future of 3D Printing Electronic Components."

Girish Wable is manager and strategic capability lead for Advanced Technology at Jabil, a global manufacturing services and supply chain management company. Headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla., Jabil provides product ideation and creation through industrialization services to leading brands. With a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Science in Industrial Engineering, Girish is a technology, operations, sourcing, and business solutions strategist for Jabil. With more than 20 years of global experience in electronics manufacturing, high-performance coatings, material handling, automation, additive manufacturing, and printed electronics, Girish leads business and technical strategic initiatives for the company.

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