Collaboration Leads to Breakthroughs in Printed and Flexible Electronics
By Edwin L. Aguirre
Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. Today’s 3D printers can deposit material precisely, layer upon layer, into almost any geometric shape, enabling the creation of lighter, stronger parts and systems for use in a variety of applications, from cellphones and medical devices to cars and jet engines. The technology allows companies to perform rapid prototyping quickly and more efficiently, and at a lower cost.
According to Barclays Investment Bank, “Over time, additive manufacturing will likely continue to close the gap with traditional manufacturing and expand its influence on a $14 trillion global manufacturing industry.”
At the forefront of research in additive manufacturing and printed electronics in New England are the Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC) and the Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute (RURI).
PERC is a consortium of industry, university and government partners based at UMass Lowell and RURI is a state-of-the-art joint research facility between UMass Lowell and Raytheon Technologies, which is one of the world’s largest aerospace and defense companies with 195,000 employees and $74 billion in revenues in 2019.
PERC and RURI are both housed on the top floor of the Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center on North Campus, which features advanced 3D printing and modeling labs, a microwave test lab, an antenna characterization lab (echo-free chamber), and a packaging and subsystem integration lab with robotic arms for printing on 3D objects.
“RURI leverages UMass Lowell’s strengths in printed electronics and nanotechnology that align with Raytheon’s strategic technology needs, including high-frequency printed conformal antennas, carbon-based transistors and photonic devices,” says Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Craig Armiento, who is the director of PERC and co-director of RURI.
“It also serves as a launch pad for collaboration and learning among UMass Lowell faculty and students and Raytheon employees,” he says.
Alkim Akyurtlu, professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of PERC, says the partnership between Raytheon and UML has led to numerous innovations in nanomanufacturing technology since 2014, when RURI was inaugurated.
“We’ve had many research projects with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and industry, as well as novel ideas and patents,” Akyurtlu says. In addition, both graduate and undergraduate students have numerous opportunities for hands-on research experience at the facility.
“RURI is unique because Raytheon engineers have offices onsite, and they work shoulder-to-shoulder with our faculty and students every day, tackling very challenging problems. It’s a true example of teamwork,” she says.
Aside from DOD, RURI projects are supported by internal research and development funds as well as external funding from the Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Army, the Air Force Research Laboratory, America Makes (a public-private partnership for additive manufacturing), the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, and Nextflex (a consortium working to advance manufacturing of flexible hybrid electronics).
“UMass Lowell has benefitted immeasurably from RURI through the student research experiences and revenues generated by projects with DOD and industry,” says Akyurtlu. “It has also helped draw attention to the university through RURI’s research accomplishments, which have been presented at conferences and invited talks as well as in journal articles.”
Current areas of research focus at RURI include developing advanced printing processes (5-axis printing of fine features and hybrid 3D and 2D printing), printing of 3D antennas and phased arrays and RF (radio frequency) connectors on 3D objects, new approaches to packaging and device integration (printed microwave subsystems, vertical interconnects and low-inductance chip interconnects), novel materials for new devices (ferroelectric inks, resistive inks and dielectric inks) and modeling of flexible/conformable electromagnetic devices.
A Growing Demand for Highly Skilled Workers
“Aside from advancing innovative research, the other goal of RURI is workforce development—to develop a talent pipeline of new employees trained in additive and microwave technologies,” says Mary Herndon, an engineering fellow at Raytheon Missiles and Defense and co-director of RURI.
To date, 19 UML graduates who trained at RURI have been hired by Raytheon. And five Raytheon employees have obtained, or are in the process of obtaining, master’s degrees or doctorates in electrical and computer engineering or mechanical engineering from UMass Lowell through Raytheon’s Advanced Studies Program, in which the company funds employees to get their graduate degrees. The employees perform their thesis projects at RURI.
To help meet the growing demand for highly skilled workers that the industry requires, Akyurtlu and Armiento, working with professors in the Mechanical and Plastics Engineering departments, designed an interdisciplinary graduate certificate program called Additive Manufacturing for RF and Microwave Applications. Launched in 2017, the program is designed for workers who already have a bachelor’s degree in engineering and want to acquire academic credentials to advance within the company or to change career paths.
Raytheon, which employs approximately 700 UMass Lowell alumni, also offers undergraduates opportunities for professional experience through internships, coops and senior capstone design projects. The company has also endowed student scholarships.
“We clearly have a strong partnership, and the best proof is the hundreds of the university’s alumni who are helping Raytheon Technologies define the future of aerospace and defense,” says Mark Russell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at UMass Lowell in 1983 and is now Raytheon Technologies’ chief technology officer and head of its Technology & Global Engineering organization.
Russell is a member of the Francis College of Engineering’s Industrial Advisory Board and the National Academy of Engineering, and was the 2018 recipient of UMass Lowell’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
“Over time, our partnership has evolved and grown as new technologies and research areas come to the forefront, further strengthening both organizations. And it is providing UMass Lowell’s talented graduates with a great place to work and have rewarding careers—including myself,” he adds.