We need to understand at microscopic level what is happening during the printing process – Interview with 3D Printing Electronics Conference speaker Wijnand Germs

We need to understand at microscopic level what is happening during the printing process – Interview with 3D Printing Electronics Conference speaker Wijnand Germs

As Project Manager with the Dutch research institute TNO Wijnand Germs specializes in the integration of electronics in 3D printing, also called ‘structural electronics’. He and his colleagues are developing a 3D printer that will eventually be able to manufacture high-quality products with the electronics already in place. That’s a major step forward from the current 3D printers, which are mainly used for prototyping.

Wijnand Germs will speak about this exciting new development during the 3D Printing Electronics Conference on January 24th at High Tech Campus Eindhoven. We already got a sneak preview.

What kind of products will TNO’s new 3D printer be able to make?
“Basically any product that requires a high degree of personalization. One area we are working on is lighting in order to produce highly personalized or exclusive lamps, both for consumers and for architects. We’re also looking at exoskeletons that include sensors and bluetooth with which the exoskeleton can track your movements and communicate with your phone or send its data to a physiotherapist. In this way structural electronics is also a key enabling technology for the internet of things. It’s especially useful for producing small series. That buys into the ‘long tail’ philosophy. As a company you can have a huge product catalogue with lots of small series, where each product delivers a high margin.”

Is this technology already available?
“No, it will still take several years before the process is robust enough. When producing in small series it is very important that the manufacturing is done right immediately. If you’re producing a series consisting of one product, for example, and the first two printed versions are failures, it means a 300% increase in product cost. Whereas in a mass production of 10,000 products it doesn’t really matter if the first five versions fail.”

So what are the biggest obstacles that still need to be overcome?
“We need to develop more insight in the manufacturing process. That means understanding at a microscopic level what is happening during the printing process. For instance, when polymers are printed using the SLS [Selective Laser Sintering, red.] technique, small, microscopical holes or porosities may arise inside the polymer. Often you don’t even know they’re there, but these tiny holes can cause vulnerabilities in the end product. Needless to say, in an industry like aviation or automotive you can’t have that. Now we often don’t know if a print is successful until it is completed. But you want that knowledge during the manufacturing process, so you can make adjustments. At this time it isn’t possible to do that, but machine learning algorithms offer a lot of promise to make it work.”

Is TNO working with algorithms in 3D printing?
“We are, although still very much in the beginning stages. Yet much can be achieved with form recognition, meaning the algorithm knows the exact placement of the component inside the product. When placing an electronic component, it rarely ends up in the same place as you designed it. Often it has moved or rotated slightly. Yet knowing how the component is placed is essential, because you still have to 3D print channels around the component in order to connect it. Algorithms provide a solution to that problem, but they still need to be improved upon.”

Any other bottlenecks?
“Another challenge is how to deal with heat development. In conventional manufacturing there is always air around an electronic component, which serves as a cooling function. But when electronical components are 3D printed into the product, there is no air layer, so you have to solve the cooling problem in another way. One option is adding a layer of a material with thermal conductive qualities, such as ceramic. Another solution is to 3D print microchannels around the component, where a cooling fluid can run through.”

When all these problems are solved, will it be possible to 3D print your own smartphone?
“I don’t expect that will happen any time soon. Besides, this technology is geared towards industry and not to the consumer market, although elements may end up in consumer products. But who knows, in the distant future it might be possible.”

Is The Netherlands leading in this technology?
“We’re one of the frontrunners, especially in the area of research, but we’re not the leaders. One exciting development is the new manufacturing campus that is being built in the Brainport region near the Eindhoven airport. Our 3D printer will be installed there and we hope to cooperate there with other companies to develop applications and see what kinds of products the industry can make with our machine.”

Is ‘structural electronics’ the last step in 3D technology, or are there more to follow?
“What is very important in the development of 3D print technology is the ‘first time right’ principle I talked about earlier. It’s one of the most important improvements that still have to be made. On the one hand the algorithms have to get better. But we also have to be able to measure what we’re doing. The machines ASML is making are chock-full of sensors measuring the manufacturing process. Right now none of that is being done in 3D printing. But we need to be able to gauge and measure, so we can make corrections along the way. When temperature drops or rises, for instance, we can add cooling or heating and keep the manufacturing process stable. Then we can really move 3D print technology from prototyping to manufacturing, which is our goal.”

The interview was originally published on blog.hightechcampus.com. The 3D Printing Electronics Conference is organised by Jakajima, in partnership with High Tech Campus Eindhoven.

Go to High Tech Campus website to read the interview