Now that the additive manufacturing (AM) industry is at such a mature level, we’re seeing a high degree of differentiation across the market. Each vertical has become so developed that they warrant their own specialized products and services. If you look at Stratasys, for instance, you’ll see a printer seemingly dedicated to each one of them, from medical and dental to fashion.
Fabrication services, too, are branching out, with the likes of ADDMAN Group and Morf3D representing a new generation of performance 3D printing for the aerospace, space, and defense sectors. This makes a company like Advanced Printed Electronic Solutions (APES) a standout as one of the few, if only, bureaus focused on electronics 3D printing. The company just announced a strategic partnership with German electronics 3D printer manufacturer Neotech AMT, with APES taking an ownership position in the company to reinforce the global partnership.
If it hadn’t been for Additive Manufacturing Strategies 2023, I may not have gotten the chance to meet APES Founder Richard Neill, who told me about the company and its partnership with Neotech.
An Opportunity in the Nascent Electronics 3D Printing Market
Neill explained that he’d been working with AM and 3D printed electronics (3DPE) since 2018, when he began observing that the state of R&D initiatives and 3DPE projects taking place in Europe were outpacing those in the U.S. He decided that he wanted to change that by establishing a company that could become a leader in AM/3DPE solutions and services for North America.
“I started APES in 2022 with private funding based on the motivation there is an emerging opportunity for AM-based 3D printed electronics (3DPE) capabilities tied to the wave of growing interest to revitalize U.S.-based manufacturing and related new technology developments,” Neill said. “That being said, the company strategy for growth is to combine together in a diversified approach, and sell, products (both third-party and those developed in-house), engineering services (design/development/manufacturing), and technology (competencies derived from R&D projects, development of new IP within AM/3DPE and Digital Factory/Industry 4.0) for the end-to-end design and manufacturing, or realization, of customer applications that can benefit from an AM/3DPE solution.”
Like many boutique 3D printing bureaus, APES offers a range of services from engineering all the way through to production. The company currently relies primarily on Markforged equipment and other industrial class equipment for the non-electronic side of its operations, seeing fiber-reinforced polymers as being ideal for the types of rugged or high-performance applications in which 3D printed electronics might be used. For electronics 3D printing, APES uses machines from Neotech AMT.
Electronics 3D Printing with Neotech
Established in 2009, Neotech is a German pioneer of mid-range 3D printers that vary from small-scale prototyping machines up to large-format production systems. While the 15XBT features the five-axis motion control and a piezo-actuated printhead necessary for depositing conductive materials onto non-planar surfaces, the 45X G4 multiples this capacity with four printheads parallel processing of multiple parts.
“With respect to the relationship with Neotech AMT, this began in 2019 and has grown since then to become mutually beneficial to both companies,” Neill said. “We are utilizing Neotech AMT products for our 3DPE manufacturing infrastructure for both customer and in-house R&D projects. We are also working on our own products for the AM/3DPE market, one of which is released.”
APES can 3D print tough structures with its Markforged machines and then deposit functional materials onto them with the Neotech equipment or it can use Neotech systems to 3D print both the polymers and electronics together. Pick and place capability within the Neotech machines can be used to integrate functional components, such as integrated circuits, surface mount devices and other elements in conjunction with conductive circuit networks, as well. All of this, including the sintering of circuits to improve electrical characteristics, can be performed within a single Neotech system.
Neill pointed out that there are two pathways users could take with these technologies. At the moment, high-volume production is being performed by dispensing functional materials onto the surfaces of conventionally, mass manufactured parts. For prototyping and batch production, functional materials can be incorporated directly into the structural parts that are also 3D printed.
“APES has launched related services such as engineering design/development, and prototyping through pilot manufacturing. One key value proposition is that resulting manufacturing process workflows are directly transferable to volume production at Neotech facilities – so there is a clear path from prototype/R&D through production,” Neill said. “Alternatively, we are working together to support customers that desire developing their own in-house process and manufacturing capabilities. In this scenario, APES will work with the customer to determine and define their system solution requirements, including leveraging our ability to provide sales support of Neotech AMT systems as an authorized partner and systems integrator.”
Electronics 3D Printing Goes Mainstream
While he couldn’t specify any customers, he mentioned that many of those businesses who ended up with the technology for scaled manufacturing were mobile phone manufacturers.
This jives with what we already know about electronics 3D printing: many of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers are experimenting with the technology, if not using it directly in production. This includes Apple, Google, Samsung, Meta and others, most of whom are confirmed customers of Optomec. Exactly how they use Optomec’s AerosolJet process hasn’t been made entirely public, but it is thought that they are printing antennas onto the surfaces of elements. Neill noted that Neotech’s products fall well below the price point of multimillion dollar Optomec machines and competitive with nScrypt equipment. Meanwhile, Nano Dimension is focused on planar shaped printed circuit boards, primarily.
Because electronics 3D printing is only now receiving minor public attention, potential users aren’t always familiar with the technology. Therefore, they may be reluctant to immediately purchase a Neotech machine. For that reason, APES serves as a gateway to Neotech systems. Once a client progresses with APES on a project, it can ultimately acquire its own printers for in-house production. This includes custom Neotech machines with a working area of over two meters in size.
APES and Neotech Announce Strategic Partnership
To enhance and accelerate the company’s growth strategy, APES and Neotech formed a global strategic partnership. Of the deal, Neill said, “The partnership has cemented the sharing of resources and technologies across both companies, as well as anchoring our mutual go to market strategies for products, services and marketing/sales.”
In a press release regarding the news of the collaboration, Dr. Martin Hedges, Managing Director of Neotech, said, “3D printed electronics is a rapidly emerging, next generation AM technology for the agile, sustainable manufacture of advanced mechatronic systems. The strategic partnership with APES will accelerate its deployment and integration in the U.S., supportive of recent policy imperatives in rebuilding the U.S. manufacturing base. By collaborating with APES through technology and resource sharing, this will accelerate product development across North America as well as globally, with each company benefiting from the other’s advanced R&D and patent portfolios.”
The deal simultaneously ensures APES greater access to German technology and know-how, while giving Neotech a greater footprint in North America. Neill said that this partnership is part of a broader strategy of growth for the firm, which will include “leveraging local talent, expanding its 3DPE manufacturing in the U.S. with additional Neotech AMT as well as other company systems, and working to develop new partnerships where additional value, market share, or capabilities can be gained.”
As witnessed from power users like the world’s tech giants, 3DPE are only going to grow in importance and APES has caught the trend at an early, crucial stage. With the semiconductor supply disruption and resulting CHIPs act, there will be increasing efforts to secure local, sustainable forms of manufacturing for electronics production and 3D printing is likely to play a key role.
Feature image courtesy of Neotech AMT.
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