Cooperation in printed electronics

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Partnership at Empa in Dübendorf: (from left) Dave Ramahi, CEO, Optomec, Urs Ber

Partnership at Empa in Dübendorf: (from left) Dave Ramahi, CEO, Optomec, Urs Berger, Director of Sales - EMEA, Optomec, Harald Moder, Founder & President, Merconics, Lars Sommerhäuser, Head of Advanced Manufacturing, Empa, Pierangelo Gröning, Head of Department Advanced Materials and Surfaces, Empa

Empa is expanding its Coating Competence Center (CCC) thanks to a new partnership in the field of printed electronics with US-based equipment manufacturer Optomec. Optomec is providing Empa with a new aerosol jetting system that enables electronic conductors and circuits to be printed on three-dimensional objects. The goal of the partnership is to develop new materials and applications for the technology.

The printing of electronic components has developed considerably in recent years. The areas of application are diverse and range from flexible, touch-sensitive screens for mobile phones to virtually "switchless" switches that are printed from the inside onto the plastic housing of an electrical appliance. For several years now, Empa has been very active in developing manufacturing technologies in the field of printed electronics in order to make products more powerful, more robust and cheaper.

Thanks to the new partnership with Optomec, a leading manufacturer of aerosol jetting systems, the machine park in Empa’s Coating Competence Center (CCC) could be further expanded. "Aerosol jetting perfectly complements the CCC’s existing technology portfolio of gravure, flexo, screen and inkjet printing," says Jakob Heier, who leads various projects in this area at Empa. Thanks to the new technology, not only flat substrates but also three-dimensional structures can now be printed. What’s more, the CCC also hosts systems necessary for upor downstream steps in the production process of electronically printed components, such as a Pulsforge system from Novacentrix for sintering inorganic inks with pulsed flash lamps.

Optomec provides Empa with a 5-axis system called AJ5X, which uses the latest generation of print heads for aerosol jetting. This allows three-dimensional workpieces to be printed from all sides with electrically conductive tracks in a single step. "With the new system we can, for instance, print a radio antenna into the casing of a smartphone," says Heier.

The goal of the partnership between Empa and Optomec is to jointly develop aerosol jetting technology further and thus enable the manufacturing of innovative products. In particular, Empa will contribute its expertise in the field of materials and processes; in addition to its expertise in mechanical engineering, Optomec will contribute profound knowledge of markets and applications for printed electronics to the partnership.

In addition to research and development activities, Optomec will also use the new facility to showcase the new AJ5X system to its European customers and to print samples and demonstrators. Optomec will employ a process engineer to operate the system and to train others to use it. Together with Empa researchers, Optomec would like to demonstrate what is feasible with aerosol jetting technology.

"The collaboration between Empa and Optomec in the field of printed electronics is an excellent example of how to close the gap between laboratory research and industrial application. This enables a much faster technology transfer," says Lars Sommerhäuser, who heads Empa’s research activities in the field of Advanced Manufacturing. The agreement provides for the joint use of facilities and infrastructure, which will benefit both sides. At the same time, Empa researchers are free to collaborate with other partners. "I would like to see more of these partnerships between science and industry in Switzerland in the future," says Sommerhäuser, who, in addition to his work at Empa, is program manager of the ETH Domain’s Strategic Focus Area "Advanced Manufacturing" (SFA-AM) and is committed to establishing a nationwide network of technology transfer centers in this area.