Friday, 23 November 2012

Carbomorph material for 3D Printed Electronics

With the increase of additive manufacturing (3D Printing) in so many product categories, it is natural that the specter of "printed electronics" is raising its head. 3D printing can already manufacture in multiple materials and with moving parts, so why not embed the electronics as well?

This is NOT 3D Printed Electronics
The idea of 3D printing a product with embedded electronics appeals to anyone with the proverbial "Star Trek" replicator on their mind. The idea also appeals to 'makers' who already use 3D printing to make plastic parts for their homegrown and community-led electronics projects. Examples include FDM-printed plastic robots with LED eyes and customized boxes for devices such as the Arduino and RaspberryPi. 

A lot of real electronics is already "printed" of course, e.g. thin film transistors, resisters and the like. Wikipedia is a useful starting point for learning about this field. More is coming.

The Norwegian company ThinFilm are advancing the state-of-the-art using esoteric techniques such as printing re-writeable non-volatile memory using ferroelectric polymers. This opens the possibility of printed "memory everywhere", in toys, cards, games, sensors, batteries, displays, RFID tags and on other surfaces.  The use of a polymer must ring loud bells for anyone interested in the development of hybrid AM processes that include electronics. 

In another development, Stratasys are collaborating with Optomec to develop printable objects embossed with electronics. Optomec's Aerosol Jet Printing (AJP) has the ability to print fine feature electronic, structural and biological patterns onto almost any substrate.  

More recently, a team from the University of Warwick in the UK have created an inexpensive conductive plastic nicknamed 'carbomorph'. They have demonstrated how the material can be FDM-printed as part of a 3D object to form touch sensitive areas, flex sensors and buttons. They plan to print wires and connection points to external devices.

Can these techniques be used to create hybrid 3D printing processes that embrace electronics? Imagine if, for example, one of the many material options offered by Object included a material like carbomorph or an electric polymer? 

I wonder in what combination fused deposition, inkjet, polyjet, aerosol jet, ferroelectric polymers, carbomorphs, silver-nanos and sol-jel inks will win in the race to a usefully general-purpose 3D-printed electronic platform, one that is compatible with other AM processes.  If anyone out there has any cross-over ideas, do let me know. 

Next step: Now imagine throwing in 3D printed optics to boot, replacing the discrete LED eyes in the plastic robots above. I cannot help thinking that the journey to a future where it is possible NOT to need to assemble a sophisticated consumer product is a long one. It will also require changes in the way we think about the internal geometry, proximity and interconnection of parts.

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