While much of it takes place behind the closed doors of corporate labs, electronics 3D printing is quietly revolutionizing the way goods are manufactured in the U.S. and abroad. And, thanks to the CHIPS Program, it is receiving a federal boost that will see new ways of making electronics take place at an increasingly domestic level. To learn more about this trend, we spoke to Dr. Art Wall, Director of Fab Operations at NextFlex.
Promoting Electronics Printing in the U.S.
Established in 2015, NextFlex is one of 17 Manufacturing USA institutes across the United States. While other organizations within the network focus on such areas as cybersecurity, robotics, or in the case of America Makes, 3D printing, NextFlex has as its mission the advancement of printed flexible electronics. In that way, the institute often finds itself overlapping with the additive manufacturing (AM) industry when it comes to areas of electronics production.
“If you think about a traditional printed circuit board, we now create them in a very different way. We do it by printing, which is an additive process. There’s no etching. There’s no lithography. Printing electronics provides several different advantages, including the ability to make devices lightweight, low cost, and flexible,” Wall said.
Like America Makes and the other Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, NextFlex serves as a junction point for industry stakeholders, linking companies, government agencies, colleges and more to advance the state of the art. This includes executing project calls, sharing information, performing job training, and distributing government funding. By fostering a collaborative ecosystem, NextFlex aims to leverage the collective expertise of its members to address industry-wide challenges and drive innovation.
“We represent a consortium of about a hundred organizations across industry and academia. Then, on top of those hundred organizations, there’s a whole host of federal agencies that we work with. So, we’ve formed this community around this manufacturing technology. Another piece of what we do is in the area of education and workforce development, which is becoming really important as we look at things like the CHIPS Program. NextFlex is among the most successful institutes in the area of education and workforce development—so much so that seven of the other institutes have licensed our education program, FlexFactor®, from us and adapted it to their technology focus area.”
NextFlex engages industry, academia and government through its technical working groups that aim to anticipate the direction of technological advancement over the next five years. This not only helps members strategize and invest intelligently, but also identifies manufacturing challenges that need to be tackled to sustain technological progress. Additionally, through an annual project call, NextFlex uses federal funds to collectively address identified issues. They solicit solutions from the community, fund the work to solve these problems, and then disseminate the findings amongst all members and the federal government.
Based in San Jose, California, the organization also has its own fabrication operations that cover design, printing, assembly, software, firmware, and testing at the prototype stage. Led by Wall himself, the facility’s primary objective is to transition this technology into manufacturing. After the early stages, as demand rises, member companies stand ready to facilitate high-volume manufacturing. Currently, the organization is handling projects involving thousands or even tens of thousands of prototypes. However, when the demand exceeds their capacity, like 10,000 units per month, the member companies step in. The process of transferring the knowledge, materials, process, and equipment to these companies for high-volume production is currently underway.
Adding Additive to Printing Electronics
NextFlex, which is federally funded through the DoD under the banner of Manufacturing USA, recently recognized the true uniqueness of its mission lies in the 3D printing of electronics, not necessarily in the flexibility of these electronics. As a result, the institute has begun referring to its work more often as hybrid electronics rather than flexible hybrid electronics. One transformative outcome of this additive focus is the ability to print electronics anywhere, ranging from an aircraft wing to a car door, eliminating the need to print on one surface and subsequently affix it to another. Consequently, the emphasis on additive methodologies is becoming more central to NextFlex’s operations and its identity.
Highlighting the bleeding edge of the technology were the results of one recent project call. NextFlex invited participants to utilize the lightweight properties of flexible electronics for a drone or UAV application. This challenge also required the creation of highly complex, multi-layer, mostly printed circuitry. One team developed two notably intricate, high-frequency, flexible radar boards. These radar arrays, operating at 24 and 66 gigahertz, provide UAVs with a form of vision. Not only does this showcase the advanced potential of flexible hybrid electronics, but it also broadens the scope of what can be achieved with this technology, proving it can be used for complex devices and high-frequency operations.
“The goal of the project was to demonstrate advanced technology in the area of flexible hybrid electronics, but it’s also to really stretch the imagination of what can be done with this sort of technology,” Wall said. “I would say that’s probably at least one of the most complex electronic devices made with additive electronics printing.”
The process of creating multi-layered flexible electronics is becoming increasingly more accessible, and this progression forms a significant part of NextFlex’s current focus. Several companies, like Nano Dimension, are already creating multi-layer boards using inkjet printing, contributing to the growth and diversity of this technology. This is particularly intriguing because multi-layer construction can be approached in several ways. For instance, the previously mentioned radar board was not built using inkjet printing but applied different methodologies, illustrating the range of techniques available in multi-layer flexible electronics production.
The field of electronics 3D printing is at a critical juncture as it continues to evolve and diversify. One of the primary responsibilities of organizations like NextFlex is to explore the myriad of techniques that can be utilized in this space and share the results – including advantages and disadvantages – with their members. Unlike conventional PCB production, which has standardized methods, electronics 3D printing is new and continues to inspire different creative approaches. Whether it’s through varied printing technologies or laminating layers, the best approach remains unestablished, creating an intriguing and significant inflection point for this technology.
Furthermore, new players are disrupting the status quo. Companies like Optomec are making significant advancements by offering alternatives to traditional methods like wire bonding. Wire bonding, although mature, comes with challenges, particularly impedance matching at high frequencies. Optomec offers solutions that could replace wire bonding, particularly for high-frequency applications, attracting investment from several companies. The field of flexible electronics also continues to hold much interest due to its unique applications.
“Electronics 3D printing is also interesting from a manufacturing point of view. If you can print electronics on a flexible substrate, it opens up the whole possibility of doing things on roll-to-roll,” Wall said. Wall speaks from experience, as his previous company, NuvoSun, was dedicated to roll-to-roll manufacturing of solar cells. “If you need millions of something and if you can do it on a roll-to-roll process, you’ve got a real advantage relative to mass production and low cost. There are companies that we are working with that are investing in this area.”
The migration of electronic manufacturing overseas has highlighted the need for its revival in the United States, both for economic and national security reasons. Aimed at strengthening the U.S. electronics industry, the CHIPS Act, signed into law by President Biden in 2022, is seen as a vital step towards bolstering national economic and security interests.
While the majority of the program’s $52 billion in funding is expected to go into chip foundries, a substantial chunk of about $11 billion is earmarked for R&D, with advanced packaging identified as a key area of focus. This bodes well for NextFlex, which has been championing the cause of additive electronic packaging as a cornerstone of modern manufacturing.
“I give Congress real kudos for understanding that they must invest in the rest of the supply chain [and not just foundries]. It’s great if I can make a wafer, but if the next thing I have to do is put it in a box and ship it off to Asia to be packaged or assembled, it defeats the whole purpose,” Wall explained. “But NextFlex is making sure that they don’t forget that there’s some leading-edge technologies that should also be supported—not just traditional or advanced packaging, but some of these emerging methodologies. And that’s where we think that hybrid electronics really deserves a place at the table relative to the packaging portion of the CHIPS Program.”
Closely related to the CHIPS Program is sustainability. This is not only because re-localization of manufacturing would mean lowering emissions and energy costs associated with shipping, but because as a key technology in the strategy, AM enables more sustainable design and production. This is true in electronics 3D printing as much as it is in other forms of AM.
“The whole way in which people create modern electronics is expensive. It’s messy. There are a lot of steps. There’s a lot of waste that’s generated when you have to etch away so much material.” Wall explained. “Because there’s no etching and there’s no lithography and all of these other process steps, electronics 3D printing is more environmentally friendly. The waste stream goes way down. The power required to build these things goes way down. It’s just print and done.”
Despite the challenges, Wall is optimistic about the future of 3D printing in electronics manufacturing. He acknowledges the current inability of additive processes to match the resolution of modern lithography. However, he believes that as technology evolves, so too will the capabilities of 3D printing. Emerging methodologies for printing very fine lines are increasingly showing promise, and institutes like NextFlex are critical to developing these technologies for mass production. The institute’s role is to streamline these technological innovations and prepare them for scalable application in the industry.
Companies from around the globe are making significant strides in printing technology. Polish company XTPL, Japanese firm Super Inkjet, as well as U.S.-based Optomec and IDS, are all pushing the boundaries of what’s achievable with additive manufacturing. Wall underscores the importance of organizations like NextFlex in creating a coherent framework for these disparate technological developments.
By driving technological advancement and fostering collaboration, NextFlex is positioning itself as an indispensable player in the U.S.’s manufacturing renaissance. The organization is setting the groundwork for a future where advanced 3D printing technologies are an integral part of the electronics manufacturing landscape. The development and eventual implementation of these technologies promise not only to transform the industry but also to redefine U.S. manufacturing for the 21st century.
Feature image courtesy of NextFlex.