The semiconductor industry, a cornerstone of modern society, is facing a significant challenge in probe testing. This $500 billion sector, essential for powering our devices, transport, and communication systems, is currently limited by its ability to test components at pitches below 40 μm. This limitation hampers chip design and scaling, necessary to meet growing consumer demand, particularly in the rapidly expanding microLED market. Expected to grow by 80% CAGR and reach valuations in the tens of billions in the next five years, the microLED sector is poised for explosive growth. However, testing methodologies lag, with individual LED testing through two-probe setups, creating a bottleneck in efficiency and innovation.
Enter Exaddon and the world of microscale 3D printing. Exaddon has developed a unique method for microscale metal 3D printing dubbed μ3D. Previously used primarily for scientific research, μ3D is now being marketed for the fabrication of probes capable of fine-pitch probing at sub-20 μm pitch, said to be a significant leap from the current industry standard.
Exaddon’s initial foray into the microLED market is made up of a 3D printed test array, capable of less than 20 μm pitch. The array, comprised of 128 probes, offers a massive 64x increase in testing efficiency for microLED testers, according to the company. The process is further streamlined by printing directly on customizable and exchangeable space transformers, reducing the need for multiple components, thereby simplifying manufacturing and cutting costs.
By enabling testing at finer pitches, the technology increases the active die area, thus boosting yield and reducing chip costs. This, in turn, could lead to more affordable consumer devices. The versatility of the μ3D printing process, which excels at printing high aspect ratio, freestanding structures, allows for contacting various pad, bump, and ball structures, broadening its application scope.
In essence, Exaddon’s μ3D printing technology is powered by local electrodeposition of pure metal. The flagship μ3D printing system is called CERES, capable of additive manufacturing intricate metal objects with a size range of less than 1 µm to 1000 µm. The technology operates at room temperature and doesn’t require any post-processing, making that much easier to adopt. With the ability to print overhanging structures without support and achieve resolutions of less than 1 µm, CERES can create pure metal objects from a variety of materials, including copper, gold, nickel, silver, and platinum. This precision is supported by high-resolution cameras and what is described as a user-friendly software interface.
At the heart of the CERES system is the electrochemical deposition µAM process, which involves an iontip nozzle that dispenses a metal ion-containing liquid through microchannels and electrodeposition onto conductive surfaces. The process constructs objects voxel by voxel, with optical force feedback providing real-time process control.
If μ3D printing sounds a little familiar, that may be because the U.S. startup Fabric8Labs offers a somewhat similar process called electrochemical additive manufacturing that also works at room temperature. Fabric8’s website shows parts made with submicron resolution and the firm targets the electronics industry, but the exact applications have not yet been made public. Exaddon also parallels Vectoflow, which targets the probe market with a variety of high-resolution devices. However, unlike Exaddone, Vectoflow relies on laser powder bed fusion to create them.
All of these firms are operating at a time when the semiconductor industry is demonstrated an increased public interest in 3D printing technologies. Due to the secretive nature of that sector, it’s difficult to know the myriad ways that additive manufacturing is being deployed, but we know that it is everywhere from tiny resistors to assemblies within lithography equipment.
Because of the sheer scale and value of the segment, there’s plenty of room for Exaddon, Fabric8, and anyone else who wants to bring innovation and efficiency to the space. Furthermore, efforts to re-shore semiconductor manufacturing mean that there should be plenty of public and private money to aid in the introduction of 3D printing to the sector.
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