Every day, the move towards emerging printing technologies gains momentum. Increasing demand for displays and flexible electronics, motivated by forthcoming 5G network applications and strong requirements for miniaturization and advanced electronic integration, are all potent accelerators. At the same time, digital-inspired technologies such as spray, Aerosol Jet, inkjet, and mass-transfer printing are pushing the limits of conventional manufacturing processes. In the midst of this vibrant market, Yole Développement (Yole) forecasts in its report “Emerging Printing Technologies 2019” a 5.8% increase over the period 2018 – 2024, reaching $781M in emerging printing equipment sales.
To help our readers better understand the challenges linked with using these new technologies, Jérôme Mouly, Senior Technology & Market Analyst & Business Developer specialized in microtechnologies within the Photonics & Sensing team at Yole, sat down with Michael Dean, Marketing Director at Optomec, to get his thoughts on the industry’s present and future.
Jérôme Mouly (JM): Please introduce Optomec’s history, activity, and product portfolio.
Michael Dean (MD): Optomec specializes in 3D Additive Manufacturing in two main categories: Printed Electronics and Printed Metals. In both cases, Optomec has taken processes that were developed in research labs and refined them to ensure stability, added robust motion-control architectures, and worked with suppliers to develop production-grade materials – all in an effort to move the technology from the R&D environment to our customers’ manufacturing floor, where it can add the most value. This effort has taken nearly 20 years and $50 million in R&D, but it has produced 60 patents and 500 delivered machines for our customers so far.
JM: Can you describe the working principle of Aerosol Jet, the technology Optomec has developed?
MD: Aerosol Jet (AJ) technology is essentially a way to print extremely fine features using nanoparticle inks from a very high stand-off distance. For example, a 10 micron-wide feature can be printed from one millimeter away from the substrate. If you think about it, this means the stand-off distance is 100 times greater than the feature dimension. Clearly, this level of focusing precision takes some pretty sophisticated aerodynamic engineering. It works like this: first an aerosol mist is created from a solution of nanoparticles and solvent. The aerosol particles are then sized and conveyed to a nozzle that is sheathed in a focusing gas that accelerates the particles and focuses them into a laser-like jet that is then patterned onto the substrate. The last step in the process is to sinter the nanoparticles together, taking advantage of a curious property of nanoparticles: they will lock together with very low energy input, so this step can be accomplished at low temperatures by several different methods.
JM: Can you summarize the typical capabilities of Aerosol Jet, and its related applications in the electronics, microelectronics, and display markets? What is the maturity for the technology’s use, per application (R&D, pilot, production)?
MD: Our production applications fall mainly into three groups: printed interconnects, 3D antennas, and printed sensors. The first category, printed interconnects, has three subcategories: interconnects for 2.5 and 3D IC packaging, interconnects for increased performance on mm-wave components, and interconnects for various display architectures. In each of these subcategories we are seeing a mix of R&D, pilot/early production. The general market demand for miniaturization and mm-wave applications like 5G and automotive radar have naturally kept us busy in this segment. With regard to 3D antennas and sensors, we have been active in these segments a bit longer, having reached production scale for consumer devices, medical, and aerospace customers.
JM: Who are the typical customers for Optomec’s Aerosol Jet equipment? How is your market evolving (i.e. growth, dynamics, installation base)?
MD: Our customer base is diverse, comprising consumer devices, medical devices, aerospace, and automotive. And of course, we still maintain a great network of academic and research institutions that help keep us ready for the next wave of applications. The main change in customer base for Optomec took place a couple of years ago, when the majority of customers switched from R&D groups to production teams. As far as market forces go, we see no end to the demand for further miniaturization, denser IC packaging, and increased RF performance. These forces cause our customers to ask a very important question, “Can you give me a viable alternative to using 60-year-old wire bond technology for my interconnects?”.
JM: Optomec recently announced interest from Samsung for consumer electronics applications. How do you see this tech giant using Aerosol Jet? Is it a good sign that big players like Samsung are interested in emerging printing technologies?
MD: Indeed, it’s great news for our industry that leaders like Samsung, Lockheed, Panasonic, Siemens, Honeywell, United Technologies, Northrop, NASA, the U.S. Navy, Army, and Air Force – and more – are seeing the value in our technology and adopting our processes. Naturally, we do not disclose the specifics of the Aerosol Jet applications, but it’s safe to say that the common threads are denser IC packaging and improved RF performance aimed at production.
JM: What is your customers’ motivation for using Aerosol Jet technology? What is the perceived added-value?
MD: Our customers’ motivation comes from their customers’ expectations. Moore’s Law is still alive. Every two years the average data usage per person doubles. Cars are expected to get safer and do more of the driving for us. 5G is now a built-in expectation within the next few years, etc. All of these expectations will drive denser IC packaging and improved analog circuit performance. And for many applications, this means adopting advanced packaging. In some cases, it also means manufacturers will have to deal with thinner substrates that are made out of more fragile materials, thus many of our customers are seeking a non-contacting interconnect technology that produces less scrap than, say, wire bonding.
JM: Conventional semiconductor technologies and screen-printing are well-established, proven approaches. Do you foresee the development of emerging printing techniques as competing technologies, or differentiated technologies serving new markets?
MD: It is strange, but our biggest competition does not come from alternative printing technologies, but rather from the old wire bonding methods. Our industry made trillions of wire bonds last year, and for the majority of these applications, wire bonds are just fine. But for a growing portion of our industry, wire bonding simply takes up too much space, chokes off too much RF, or is not reliable enough. For many of these applications, Aerosol Jet is the best alternative for two main reasons: 1) it can print finer features than other printing technologies, and 2) it has up to 5mm of stand-off distance from the ICs. Other technologies, like inkjet, are usually not viable options for advanced packaging.
JM: What is the next evolution for Aerosol Jet printing? New printing capabilities, new equipment types?
MD: We will see, very shortly, Aerosol Jet technology with higher levels of custom automation integration for production: robotic loading and multiple print heads, for example. We will also see continued development and more options in materials, such as copper and gold. Finally, we are just now announcing 8-hr run times, meaning the AJ system can operate throughout an entire production shift without external intervention. This is a major milestone for our production customers.
Aerosol Jet is a trademark of Optomec, Inc
Michael Dean, Director of Marketing at Optomec, has over 25 years of experience in process and factory automation in design and marketing roles. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of St. Thomas, a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering from the University of Minnesota and a Masters of Business Administration from Trinity College, Dublin. He is a licensed Professional Engineer.
Jérôme Mouly serves as a Senior Technology & Market Analyst & Business Developer specialized in microtechnologies within the Photonics & Sensing team at Yole Développement (Yole). Jérôme actively assists and supports the development of strategic projects, working with leading customers of the company
Since 2000, he has also been engaged in more than 100 marketing and technological analyses for industrial groups, start-ups and institutes in the field of MEMS, especially inkjet printheads and dispensing technologies as well as the related manufacturing processes.
Through the group’s numerous activities at Yole, Jérôme covers the whole microelectronic supply chain including manufacturing processes and device development.
Jérôme Mouly holds a Master of Physics from the University of Lyon (France).
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