Printing fully operational parts is one of the most coveted goals in modern additive manufacturing. This is especially true of electronics. While researchers have posited many versions of such a model, it appears a team from University of Nottingham may have made a crucial breakthrough. The researchers have proposed a method of building function electronic circuits using inkjet printing. This exciting new development has the potential for electronics producers to make ready to use components directly.
Their method essentially uses 3D printing to make 2D printed electronics. The circuits are printed with very rapidly using conductive inks and insulating polymer inks. Aside from the clear importance to functional electronics printing, the use of multiple materials also makes this research a leap forward in multi-functional additive manufacturing, a type of printing that involves multiple materials at once.
Professor Chris Tuck, Professor of Materials Engineering and lead investigator of the study, highlighted the potential of the breakthrough, ‘Being able to 3D print conductive and dielectric materials (electrical insulators) in a single structure with the high precision that inkjet printing offers, will enable the fabrication of fully customised electronic components. You don’t have to select standard values for capacitors when you design a circuit, you just set the value and the printer will produce the component for you.’
Multi-material Inkjet Printing
Inkjet printing, as mentioned earlier, plays a crucial role in the breakthrough. It has provided researchers with the ability to use multiple materials in a single print. This one simultaneously uses a conductive material and an insulator. As a result, it uses a singular process to print out a full object that is also ready for operational use.
The researchers managed to speed up the solidification process of the conductive inks to less than a minute per layer. Being an inkjet process, this method processes layers using UV technology. Dr Ehab Saleh and members of the team from CfAM found that silver nanoparticles in conductive inks are capable of absorbing UV light efficiently. The absorbed UV energy is converted into heat, which evaporates the solvents of the conductive ink and fuses the silver nanoparticles. This process affects only the conductive ink and thus, does not damage any adjacent printed polymers. The researchers used the same compact, low cost LED-based UV light to convert polymeric inks into solids in the same printing process to form multi-material 3D structures.
The lead researchers are thrilled by the prospect of this new innovation. Professor Richard Hague, Director of the Centre for Additive Manufacturing (CfAM) added, ’Printing fully functional devices that contain multiple materials in complex, 3D structures is now a reality. This breakthrough has significant potential to be the enabling manufacturing technique for 21st century products and devices that will have the potential to create a significant impact on both the industry and the public.’
A special thanks to Shirlene Campbell Ritchie for contacting us and providing the information.