BotFactory has been selected by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) AFWERX technology accelerator program to develop a fully-automated desktop machine for on-site, on-demand 3D printing and assembly of printed circuit boards (PCBs). Through a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant worth $750,000, the New York-based 3D printer solutions provider will be working closely over a 15-month term with partners at the 402nd Warner Robins Air Force base lab in Georgia.
The project began in March 2020, when BotFactory received a $49,971 grant to work under a Phase I SBIR contract, awarded by USAF to create a fully-automated desktop printer capable of fabricating complex circuit boards. Envisioned directly from a digital design with no human interaction during the entire process, the device would lend a hand to USAF airmen and engineers to rapidly iterate new electronic devices, reverse engineer existing ones, and provide a means to replace broken, aged, or legacy systems to sustain Air Force assets.
In the second SBIR stage, BotFactory announced it has received funding to deliver a prototype and train the USAF end-users to apply the adapted solution in their operational environment. This way, additional testing can be done in the field before providing feedback and moving to the third phase. This highly anticipated and relevant last status in the SBIR contract offers companies the unique opportunity to transition their efforts into a hardware product that will benefit the USAF community or the private sector.
So, why is this device needed at USAF? Electronic devices have become an embedded element within every facet of the U.S. military, from drones and other aircraft to synthetic vision cameras and sensors. There have even been electronic textiles in various military applications throughout the last decade, like soldier uniforms. Even more so, in the future, we can expect to see more bespoke 3D printed electronics designed and integrated within military uniforms and accessories. But, according to BotFactory, prototyping PCBs is an expensive, time-consuming task. While the technology has advanced dramatically, creating them for prototyping and small-batch production has not.
Moreover, creating circuit cards requires noxious chemicals to plate the highly conductive traces (the equivalent of a wire for conducting signals), stencil, and dispensing systems for placing solder paste. Placement of the parts requires advanced machinery and skilled workers, and a carefully monitored and managed reflow oven system for connecting parts to traces stated the original SBIR Phase I award information. Each board needs many processes to be validated, tested for conductivity, and repaired if needed. This means the USAF spends millions of dollars every year contracting third-party vendors for the PCB development. Instead, an in-house 3D printer would give a USAF engineer a handy tool to guarantee a functional PCB.
BotFactory’s proposed system offers airmen the capability of rapidly prototyping designs from scratch or reverse-engineering legacy devices to sustain assets on the ground and in the sky. Taking the factory to the desktop translates to “no paperwork” and “no exposure to outsiders” of U.S. intellectual property, which is under the control of the country’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Overall, airman productivity is expected to increase, while labor costs could be reduced. Furthermore, the private industry has the same problems as the USAF, which broadens the proposed technology’s utility to the $1.5 trillion electronics industry.
Working with the Reverse Engineering Manufacturing and Restart Team of Electronic Maintenance Group (REARM) at the USAF’s 402, BotFactory says it will focus on reverse engineering legacy systems, often redesigning from scratch everything from avionics boxes, wiring harnesses, cables, front panels, faceplates, and displays. Fabricating and assembling electronics is a major bottleneck, and while 3D printing is heavily used for enclosures and other elements, REARM has been looking forward to additive manufacturing (AM) for electronics.
The goal is to create fully-tested and validated PCBs, so the company’s proposal includes ideas such as AM techniques to print the traces and artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze and monitor the fabrication and assembly process. In Phase I, company experts expected a four-layer, 100×100 mm PCB with 50 parts to take four hours to be made, from start to finish. For BotFactory Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Carlos Ospina, “integrating Inkjet Printing and Pick-and-Place capabilities for PCB fabrication is something no-one is doing, and we’re excited to work with the USAF to fix a problem that is so critical to US National Security.”
The award comes at a time when President Joe Biden’s administration has specified electronics as a critical area of importance and made an array of policy updates aimed at bolstering U.S. private-sector innovation, the defense STEM workforce, and the environmental resilience of military infrastructure and operations. Furthermore, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2021, which authorizes $8 million in funding toward “Hybrid additive manufacturing” and “Next generation additive manufacturing and 3D printed electronics,” as part of military research, development, test, and evaluation. Interestingly enough, Congress also authorized $14 million in AM processes qualification, 3D printing of unmanned maritime systems, and use of cold spray AM for polymeric composites.
Supporting local efforts for PCBs’ in-house development is crucial since the U.S. has become increasingly dependent on imported microelectronics. In fact, the U.S. military depends on foreign countries, especially China, for critical materials, which could become a problem in a crisis or conflict. This risk has been acknowledged by both political parties and reaffirmed by a presidential executive order, also known as the Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains, on the thirty-sixth day of Biden’s administration. Also concerned about imported PCBs, Congress enacted the bipartisan Creating Helpful Incentives for Producing Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act in December 2020 as part of the NDAA, which authorizes an array of R&D initiatives as well as a subsidy program for domestic semiconductor manufacturers.
PCBs themselves have become difficult to source, providing a powerful argument for investing in AM. Traditional manufacturing methods are not as quick and cost-effective as 3D printing, proving this is yet another industry where the technology can thrive. Creating 3D PCBs for future embedded electronics can open the door for more exciting new applications and markets if this trend continues.
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