Five technologies reshaping electronics manufacturing

Electronics keep getting smaller in both consumer and commercial applications. As the demand for minuscule form factors rises, electronics designers face the increasingly difficult task of embracing this trend while ensuring manufacturability.

Smaller electronics leave less room for error. Their materials may also be more prone to breaking and contamination at this scale. However, this doesn’t mean the microelectronics trend is unsustainable. Several technological innovations have arisen to meet these growing challenges.

  1. 3D printed circuits

Conventional machining poses challenges on the micro and nano scales, thanks to its vibrations, friction and general lack of precision. 3D printing is a promising alternative, especially now that it’s possible to print circuitry.

3D printing doesn’t risk breaking any fragile materials because it doesn’t cut any item away. It’s also mostly automated—removing human error—and can print structures a fraction of the width of a human hair. Newer printing materials make it possible to lay traces directly instead of cutting channels to then fill with a conductor. Consequently, they reduce production steps, leaving fewer chances for mistakes.

  1. Roller transfer printing

Other printing methods have emerged as promising micro-manufacturing solutions, too. Researchers at the University of Strathclyde found it’s possible to use roller transfer printing to adhere micro-LEDs to semiconductors at scale with minimal errors.

Roller transfer printing itself is far from new but applying it to electronics manufacturing can yield significant accuracy and production scale improvements. The researchers successfully aligned over 75,000 devices with deviations no larger than a micrometer through this continuous rolling process.

  1. Electrical discharge machining

Electrical discharge machining (EDM) is another production method with vast potential in electronics manufacturing. Unlike conventional machining, EDM involves no physical contact with the cutting surface, instead using electrical arcs to cut material. This lack of friction makes it ideal for manufacturing microscale electronics components out of sensitive materials.

Micro-EDM wires can be as small as 20 microns in diameter, enabling precise cutting tolerances. That scale is difficult to achieve with conventional machining or even laser-cutting, making this an optimal micro-engineering method.

  1. Onsite nanocrystal growth

In other microelectronics applications, machining isn’t as much of a concern as component alignment. Placing materials onto microscale semiconductors and PCBs can be difficult, given tight tolerances and the risk of breaking them through unnecessary pressure. Researchers at MIT found a solution in growing nanocrystals directly on the device.

By fostering onsite perovskite growth, the researchers positioned these materials with sub-50-nanometer accuracy and no risk of breaking the fragile nanocrystals. LEDs, lasers and solar panels would all benefit from this production method.

  1. Automation and AI

Across all these innovations, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) play an increasingly central role in electronics design. Eliminating errors is the key to overcoming many micro-machining challenges, and automating mistake-prone tasks is often the best way to do so.

3D printing, EDM and roller transfer printing are all highly automated processes. In the design stages, AI can suggest changes or simulate real-world performance to ensure manufacturability and functionality. As demands for smaller electronics rise, these technologies will become standard in the industry.

New technology makes micro-machining electronics possible

Today’s smaller electronics require ultra-precise measurements and control. The only way to manage these challenges effectively is to capitalize on new technologies. These innovations showcase how the electronics industry is evolving to meet these new demands.

Staying abreast of changes like this is key to remaining competitive in this industry.

Ellie Gabel is freelance writer as well as associate editor at Revolutionized.



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