In the 1970s, PARC, a Xerox Corporation (NYSE:XRX) company (formerly the Palo Alto Research Center), helped usher in an era of modern computing, as it built a graphical mouse-based operating system atop the foundations laid by Douglas Englebart’s NLS. The PARC Alto would inspire both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to develop the earliest consumer graphical operating systems, which continue to influence interface design today.
In the 2010s, PARC might again transform the world through technology. This time, the big step forward is “chiplets,” a minuscule form of printed electronic circuitry that can be created with modified laser printers, another PARC innovation from the 1970s. Each little chiplet is no larger than a grain of sand:
A New York Times feature published earlier this week highlights the potential this advance has in the field of printed flexible electronics, which PARC estimates will explode from a $1 billion global industry today to one worth $45 billion by 2016. Some possible applications:
Flexible and nearly unbreakable smartphones
Pressure-sensitive robotic skin
Sensor-enabled electronic (but disposable) medical bandages
Large digital screens you can roll up, fold, and put in your pocket
Low-cost durable circuit boards for a wide range of uses
These are just some of the ways in which printed circuitry might be used. As The New York Times feature points out, PARC’s development represents a radical departure from the current chip-making model, in which a large wafer of silicon is processed, cut up into individual chips, and then reassembled into the various parts of a circuit board. Times writer John Markoff says: “The emerging printing technology poses a heretical idea: Rather than squeezing more transistors into the same small space, why not smear the transistors across a much larger surface?” The PARC laser-printing format (it’s not exactly a laser printer, but it’s quite similar) proposes to place sand-sized chiplets by the thousands onto the surface of flexible substrates, and these chiplets can be assembled to perform any of the diverse jobs undertaken in today’s dizzying array of electronics by an increasingly specialized array of components.
The opportunity to upend chip-making is clear. Where does manufacturing come in?
This is a 3-D printer, one of the largest Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS) models available. It can print just about anything you can think of (within the limits of its print area), including a scale-model Aston Martin. One thing it can’t do — the single most important thing it can’t do — is print electronic circuitry. It’s not designed for that.
Stratasys could print a plastic-based robot with articulated joints. Other printers, particularly the largest variants from 3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD) and most of ExOne Co (NASDAQ:XONE)‘s small product line, can print in metal, rubber, ceramic, and an increasingly diverse range of materials — enough variety to create a functional robot. These companies may not even be necessary, as iRobot Corporation (NASDAQ:IRBT) recently filed a patent for a self-assembling 3-D printing robot manufacturing machine. All of these companies present some sort of opportunity to create a 3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD) printed robot, but none of them can provide the brains. That’s where Xerox Corporation (NYSE:XRX)’s chiplets come in.