Global production-grade 3D printer supplier Optomec holds patents for two unique 3D printing technologies: Aerosol Jet, used to 3D print electronics, even at the micron level, and LENS, for metal 3D printing; LENS can also be added on to CNC machining systems. Optomec has been busy this year, and just announced that it was awarded one of five development projects from the NextFlex consortium, to help get Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) more widely adopted. But the company isn’t undertaking this project alone: it will be working together with development partners Binghamton University, GE, Intrinsiq Materials, Lockheed Martin, and the University of Maryland, to get the job done.
FHE is a class of lightweight, low-cost, conformable devices, used for the medical, robotics, Internet of Things (IoT), and communication markets. The goal of the $3.1 million project, which is called “Conformal Printing of Conductor and Dielectric Materials onto Complex 3D Surfaces,” is to allow for the conformal 3D printing of functional dielectric and conductor materials on complex 3D surfaces by using advanced printing, software, and tooling processes. It’s not an entirely new concept: a couple years ago, the US Air Force investigated the possibility of combining the flexible and efficient devices with 3D printing technology, in order to 3D print flexible semiconductors directly onto a substrate.
The five development agreements stem from NextFlex’s Project Call 2.0 from May of 2016, which focuses on the areas identified in its Manufacturing Roadmap, like UV exposure and temperature, that work to bridge industries such as food, agriculture, and pharmaceutical with IoT and wireless communications for real-time analysis and data. NextFlex is one of the top forces in the US manufacturing industry and America’s FHE Manufacturing Institute, formed in 2015 through a cooperative agreement between the US Department of Defense and FlexTech Alliance. The total cost-shared value of contracts from all of NextFlex’s project calls so far is $45 million, which shows how confident leaders in academia, industry, and government are about making FHE mainstream.
“We’ve seen incredible interest from industry, academia and government leaders for bringing FHE to the mainstream, with $45 million in funding as proof of this united commitment,” said Dr. Malcolm Thompson, executive director of NextFlex, commenting on the conclusion of the Project Call 2.0 project selection round. “Our mission at NextFlex is clear—to catalyze U.S. manufacturing by accelerating development of a sustainable supply chain, establishing manufacturing excellence and growing the advanced manufacturing workforce, all of which are essential to cost-effective, high-volume manufacture of FHE-based products.”
Optomec’s part in the NextFlex FHE project will include an upfront delivery of two Pilot Line systems. One will be installed at the NextFlex Technology Hub in San Jose, California, and the other will go to New York; both will use Optomec’s Aerosol Jet 5-axis (5x) printing systems. The printer’s advanced tool path generation software will help the team print conformal circuitry, at a resolution down to 10 microns, onto complex 3D surfaces.Project lead Lockheed will then deliver 3D antenna structures, conformal sensors, and non-planar circuit routing demonstrators. In addition, existing Aerosol Jet systems will be available for use at several team member facilities.
Optomec CEO Dave Ramahi said, “Optomec is committed to supporting industries’ growing need to deploy smart, connected devices that take advantage of data and cloud computing advances to improve performance and lower cost throughout the product life cycle. We are very excited to be part of this important project and to be working with our NextFlex partners to accelerate the development of FHE-enabled products.”
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