“It’s the Wild, Wild West out there.”
That’s how Craig Armiento
, director of the Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC)
and professor of electrical and computer engineering, describes the emerging field of 3-D printing for electronics. “It’s in the very early stages of development,” he says. “Design is evolving, the materials are evolving, the printers are evolving and there are no standards.”
At least not yet. Armiento and his team at PERC – a partnership between the university, industry and government agencies – are pioneers in that Wild West. And like pioneers, they’re not only advancing the field, but they’re also beating a path for others to follow. They’re funded by grants from America Makes and NextFlex, a pair of public-private-academic manufacturing institutes established by the federal government to position the U.S. as a leader in manufacturing products using integrated and flexible electronics for everything from smartphones to satellites.
Raytheon took the lead on the two America Makes grants, thanks to a partnership Armiento formed between UMass Lowell and the defense and electronics giant in 2014, the Raytheon UMass Lowell Research Initiative (RURI)
. Both RURI and PERC are housed on the top floor of the Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center on North Campus, which includes state-of-the-art labs filled with 3-D printers and testing equipment.
Both grants aim to help companies bring new products to market faster and at lower cost – first, by cutting down on the time it takes for engineers to get from a new design idea to a final product, and also by reducing waste. “Additive manufacturing doesn’t waste expensive materials, because you’re only using what you’re printing, instead of starting with a chunk of material and then cutting some of it away or otherwise removing it,” Armiento says.
The first America Makes grant, nearly $1.7 million, helped researchers from Raytheon, UMass Lowell and the University of Wisconsin figure out an efficient design and 3-D printing process to connect silicon chips on the types of hybrid circuit boards used in virtually all electronic devices, including cellphones, cars and defense systems, says Alkim Akyurtlu
, professor of electrical and computer engineering and deputy director of PERC. Currently, manufacturers use wire loops to connect the chips. Akyurtlu and Armiento wanted to figure out the best way to “print” the connections directly onto the circuit board to speed up the design cycle.
“If you have shorter, straighter signal-carrying lines between chips, you get better performance,” Akyurtlu says. “And you have lower costs because 3-D printing allows for rapid prototyping.”
That’s where RURI comes in. In the labs, Raytheon engineers can work with graduate students on designing a component, “printing” a prototype, testing it and then improving the design – all within days instead of weeks or months. “We can get things done quickly here,” Armiento says.
The second America Makes grant, for $2 million, is aimed at figuring out the best materials, printers and processes to use to optimize manufacturing for integrated electronics.
Raytheon, UMass Lowell and University of South Florida engineers are figuring out how to combine a structural plastic and an electrically conductive or dielectric “ink” in a single build, using a phased radar array as their test product. They are also analyzing, testing and characterizing all the commercially available conductive and dielectric inks, structural materials, 3-D printers and other processes, such as curing times and temperatures, to figure out the best combination for manufacturing different products to various specifications. The resulting publicly shared database should greatly reduce the design, prototype, test and redesign cycle for new integrated electronics.
“Let’s say you want to print this product, and it has to meet these specifications,” says Akyurtlu, the principal investigator for UML on the grant. “You have to optimize the process for all these materials. We’re taking a systematic approach and looking at how to bring everything together.”
The benefit to students of all this research is immeasurable. Around 20 to 25 engineering students each year, about half of them undergraduates, get to work and interact with engineers from Raytheon and other companies on a daily basis at PERC. Some, like Elicia Harper ’15, ’17, go straight into jobs at Raytheon after earning a bachelor’s degree, then continue their education while working. Raytheon also sends other employees to UML for advanced degrees.
America Makes grants are also aimed at workforce development, to help meet the demand for highly skilled workers that the industry requires. Akyurtlu and Armiento, working with professors in the Mechanical and Plastics Engineering departments, have designed an interdisciplinary graduate certificate on Additive Manufacturing for Radio Frequency and Microwave Applications
. To earn the certificate, workers who already have a bachelor’s degree in engineering must take three required courses – one each in electrical, plastics and mechanical engineering – and a fourth course from a list of options. The certificate program was approved last spring and will launch this fall, Akyurtlu says.