Printed electronics is about to enter the third dimension: Circuits and much more will no longer be printed simply on foil and other flat surfaces. They will also be integrated into three-dimensional objects.
“3D-printed electronics are an emerging market,” said Dr. Takao Someya, a professor at the University of Tokyo and a member of the LOPEC’s Scientific Board. “New printing technology can be used to place electronic functions on both the surfaces of complex components and integrate them inside the components as well.”
In his keynote address to the LOPEC Congress 2018, Someya will present a conductive printing ink made of an elastomer that contains nano-silver particles. The material can be stretched to as much as five times its original length without losing any of its electric properties. In their work, Japanese researchers have produced elastic printing and temperature sensors that can be laminated onto arbitrarily shaped objects and textiles.
LOPEC exhibitor Neotech AMT of Nuremberg offers systems that print conductor tracks and other electrically active structures directly onto 3D components. The consumer electronics and automotive industries use this technology to print antennas and heating elements on curved plastic surfaces, among other things.
Many industries are awaiting 3D printers that create objects layer by layer and integrate electronic elements while doing so. With the help of several print heads, these printers can combine a number of plastics or even metal with plastic or ceramics. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials (IFAM) have printed a combination of conventional and electrically conducive plastics to create conductor tracks within plastic objects.
One of the challenges posed by 3D-multimaterial printing is the tempering of the various materials. Printing inks that contain metal particles must usually undergo a high-temperature treatment to form their electric properties. LOPEC exhibitor NovaCentrix has developed a solution that flashes extremely short bursts of pulsed light onto the printed metal structure. This process can be used on heat-sensitive plastics without causing any damage.
Decentralized, individual and cost efficient—these are the strengths of 3D printing. In the future, spare parts should be able to be printed everywhere at the press of a button, even in outer space. LOPEC exhibitor Optomec has been contracted by the US space agency NASA to develop a 3D printer that can make electronics in space.
Printed electronics has already become an integral part of the aviation industry. Sensors, light-emitting diodes and other elements made with state-of-the-art printing technologies are already being used in planes. “Up to now, we have only been printing two dimensionally on flat surfaces,” Someya said. “This limitation is now a thing of the past.”