Electronics: The Next 3-D Printing Frontier

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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 (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' 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 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 (NYSE: XRX): Chiplet printing

Xerox'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. 

The chiplets can be microprocessors, computer memory, or microelectromechanical systems, which can sense heat, pressure, or motion. 

Given Xerox's past innovations – laser printing, photocopying, and the graphical user interface – its progress certainly bears watching.

The University of Warwick (U.K): created a conductive plastic composite

This development doesn't involve 3-D printing of electronic circuitry. It's a materials development that allows for the 3-D printing of electronic items.

University researchers have created a simple and inexpensive conductive plastic composite – dubbed "carbomorph" -- that can produce electronic devices using 3-D printers, including the lower-cost consumer printers.

The composite -- per the University of Warwick -- "enables users to lay down electronic tracks and sensors as part of a 3D printed structure – allowing the printer to create touch-sensitive areas for example, which can then be connected to a simple electronic circuit board. So far the team has used the material to print objects with embedded flex sensors or with touch-sensitive buttons such as computer game controllers or a mug which can tell how full it is."

As this development attests, the growing importance of 3-D printing will not only spur advances in 3-D printing technology, but also in materials science. 

Takeaway

Given the prevalence and importance of electronics in today's world, the 3-D printing of electronics is surely the next 3-D printing frontier. The developments of the three entities highlighted, as well as others, bear watching.

And given the 3-D printing industry's merger and acquisition environment, it seems likely one or more of the majors could be interested in adding 3-D electronics printing capabilities to its (their) fold(s). 

I'll be keeping an eye on this space.

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BA McKenna has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of Stratasys. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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