DARPA Announces 3D Printing of Microelectronic Systems Program

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced the Additive Manufacturing of Microelectronic systEms (AMME) program, an endeavor aiming to accelerate development of the next generation of additively manufactured electronics (AME). Historically, DARPA has been instrumental to R&D in the AME space, beginning with a project in the 1990s, Mesoscale Integrated Conformal Electronics (MICE).

Via the MICE program, Optomec created its Aerosol Jet technology, which can print materials such as conductive inks down to a resolution of about 10μm, and sometimes smaller. DARPA’s objective with AMME is to heighten that resolution by about twentyfold, with the agency attempting to get AME processes routinely down to the 500 nm scale (0.5μm).

Not only that, but DARPA is also setting the goal of developing processes able to consistently achieve that sub-micron resolution at “unprecedented” speeds: “If successful, AMME will print a penny-sized micro system…in about three minutes.” This encapsulates the program’s ultimate goal of cultivating scalable methods for 3D printing microsystems that don’t have to sacrifice resolution for throughput, and vice versa.

Image courtesy of Optomec.

In a press release announcing DARPA’s AMME program, the program manager, Michael Sangillo, said, “AMME is inspired by new insights from selective material synthesis and volumetric [AM] that would enable a new class of microsystems. We want to remove design rules imposed by traditional manufacturing tools and demonstrate novel microsystem technologies that create new opportunities for national security and emerging applications. Our objective is to demonstrate a novel, functional microsystem that achieves [AM] advances not possible today — advances like the ability for astronauts to make on-demand repairs in space. AMME will also focus on the commercialization approach, so we can produce a manufacturing system that can be quickly adopted by the broader industrial community, including DOD and other US government organizations.”

Advanced packaging for electronics is one of the biggest opportunities that CHIPS Act funding has made possible thus far. Specifically, last November, the Biden administration announced that $3 billion for the National Advanced Packaging Manufacturing Program (NAPMP) will be made available starting this year.

For precisely the reasons noted by DARPA in its AMME announcement — tradeoffs of throughput for resolution — AM has yet to become a commercially viable solution for chip packaging at scale. On the other hand, given that a need to shorten the distance between all the semiconductor’s many steps is one of CHIPS’ main macroeconomic rationales, there is clearly long-term demand for any and all solutions that can enable reshoring of semiconductor packaging.

In the US, especially, labor shortages seem poised to indefinitely continue to be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of making that a reality. Deploying AME to maximize the potential for automation may be the most realistic option for solving that problem. Again, it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but that’s not the way to be thinking about these issues. “Could it happen by 2030?”, in general, is a much more realistic way to frame possible solutions to the greatest economic difficulties the global economy currently faces.

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