The current 3-D printers can spew out objects made from plastics, metals, ceramics, and other materials, but there's one notable thing they haven't yet been used to produce en masse – electronics. That's a biggie in today's world, where electronics are embedded in many commonplace products.
Here are three entities which are working in diverse ways on using 3-D printing to produce electronic components and products.
Optomec: prints antennas onto parts for smartphones
Optomec announced, via a May 30 press release, that its aerosol jet system can print antennas onto plastic inserts and enclosures for smartphones and other mobile devices. It said it has successfully printed antennas for uses including LTE, NFC, GPS, WLAN, and Bluetooth.
The benefits of this technology include reducing the costs of producing the antennas, and allowing electronic products to be reduced in size, if desired. Smartphones now average roughly a half dozen antennas. Currently, internal antennas are separate components (which adds cost) or circuit board traces (which takes up extra space). Another possible benefit is performance, as this technology increases antenna placement options, as the antennas can be printed on non-planar surfaces.
Additionally, this technology has safety ramifications, as it eliminates the need for hazardous chemical plating.
Dave Ramahi, President and CEO of Optomec, said, “Optomec’s antenna printing solution represents a landmark achievement in our longstanding commitment to transition additive manufacturing technologies into mainstream mass production applications. With smartphone production on pace to reach 2 billion units per year, this market represents a significant and growing business opportunity that we are well poised to pursue.”
The company's system can produce 1 to 2 million units per year, depending on the antenna design. Reportedly, the company is engaged in talks with several handset manufacturers and their OEMs (original equipment manufacturers).
Optomec, based in Albuquerque, NM, isn't a public company. However, it's reportedly fast-growing, so there's always a possibility of an IPO or buyout by a public company in the future.
It has teamed with Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS), so that angle is worth watching. Last year, the two companies teamed on a project which produced what was called the world's first hybrid (conventional 3-D printing + electronics printing) structure -- a "smart wing" for an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. The wing was printed using Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS)' 3-D technology, fused deposition modeling. An Optomec Aerosol Jet then printed an antenna, sensor, and circuitry onto the wing.
Additionally, in 2012, Optomec located its R&D facility in St. Paul, MN. Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS) is based in the area -- in Eden Prairie, MN.
In addition to its Aerosol Jet system, the company produces the Laser Engineered Net Shaping, or LENS, system, which prints metals. Optomec developed its 3-D printers based upon technology developed at Sandia National Laboratories.
Xerox Corporation (NYSE:XRX): Chiplet printing
Xerox Corporation (NYSE:XRX)'s Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, is working on technology to print electronic circuitry, according to a NYT's article, "Tiny Chiplets: A New Level of Micro Manufacturing," as I mentioned in an April piece.
The technology -- dubbed "Xerographic micro-assembly," by the project's team -- breaks silicon wafers into tens of thousands of "chiplets," and then prints the circuitry onto a surface. The precise placement of the chiplets is enabled by using an array of electrodes to generate a microscopic electrical field.