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According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, 2020 saw record-breaking international sales of semiconductors, to the tune of $439 billion. However, despite that success, the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the insecurity of worldwide semiconductor supply chains as massive shortages of semiconductor chips were seen in the first quarter of 2021.
Semiconductor Shortages in 2020
Most visibly, car manufacturers were significantly impacted by semiconductor shortages; Ford, Nissan, and Toyota all announced production cutbacks due to the lack of microprocessors. In addition, manufacturers of game consoles, Microsoft and Sony, have reported severe stock shortages within the last year.
With additional focus triggered by shortages and funding initiatives from governments worldwide, 3D printing in the semiconductor sector is becoming more attractive. According to experts, after shortages are solved, the increased focus and funding will likely result in advancements and products brought about by 3D printing. Additive manufacturing will likely bring about more innovative devices, reduced costs, more significant memory, faster speeds, and reduced energy usage.
Printing Flexible Circuits
One up-and-coming area involves recent advancements related to the 3D printing of flexible circuits.
In one development, a Germany-based research collaboration between the University of Hamburg and Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) has created a process appropriate for 3D printing that could be used to make transparent and bendable electronic circuits. The circuits are tightly weaved silver nanowires formed in suspension and placed in several flexible, transparent polymers.
In a paper published by Scientific Reports, the researchers said their technology could allow for new applications, including printed LEDs, solar panels, or electronic tools. The researchers also described how their fabrication process could be used to make a flexible capacitor.
The silver nanowires used in the mesh are usually tens of nanometers in diameter and 10 to 20 micrometers long. X-ray analysis revealed that the composition of nanowires placed in a polymer was not transformed and that conductivity increased due to the compression caused by the polymer during curing.
The silver nanowires were placed on a substrate in suspension and then left out to dry. For cost purposes, the goal was to get the maximum conductivity with the least amount of nanowires possible. This approach also lends itself to greater transparency. Using this technique in a layer-by-layer approach, the team created a conductive path or area. A flexible polymer is placed on the conductive mesh, which is then covered with another mesh and more polymer. With respect to the geometry and material required, various electronic parts could be made in this manner.
In their report, the study team said they could generate their desired finished product through a deliberate layering process but added that their process could be transferred to standard 3D printer technology. The further progression of commercial 3D printing, which is typically designed for individual printing materials, is also required for the full realization of this technology, as standard printing nozzles could easily be blocked by the tiny nanostructures.
In another collaborative development, researchers from the US Air Force and the company American Semiconductor used 3D printing to produce a flexible silicon-polymer semiconductor. The new chip is bendable and features a microcontroller with built-in memory capable of controlling and gathering data for analysis. The sophisticated, flexible integrated circuit has a memory capacity more than 7,000 times bigger than other comparable technology on the market.
Currently, 3D printing is being used to make printed circuit boards (PCBs), often with distinctive geometry, interconnected frameworks, and various amounts of embedded components. The capability to 3D-print integrated circuits and other elements straight into a PCB makes it possible for low-volume production of highly customized devices with distinctive form factors and abilities.
Greater adoption of 3D printing in the semiconductor industry is beginning to appear inevitable. Moving forward, 3D printing will probably be placed on more challenging problems than handling semiconductor shortages. This will likely mean making parts with extremely minute features and more complicated geometries. Within the next decade or so, the technology initial for small parts and aesthetics will increasingly be employed to reimagine designs.
Within two decades, design based on 3D printing will be taught in colleges and universities. The engineers coming out of these programs will have 3D printing in mind as they start their careers. This is in sharp contrast to the present generation of engineers who learn about 3D printing in the middle of their careers.
Resources and Further Reading
Molitch-Hou, M. 3D Printing Steps in to Aid Semiconductor Industry’s Faltering Supply Chains. 3DPrint.com. [Online] Available at: https://3dprint.com/280766/3d-printing-steps-in-to-aid-semiconductor-industrys-faltering-supply-chains/
Sertoglu, K. Interview: A solution to the Semicon chip shortage? How 3D printing is disrupting the $439 billion semiconductor industry. 3D Printing Industry. [Online] Available at: https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/interview-a-solution-to-the-semicon-chip-shortage-how-3d-printing-is-disrupting-the-439-billion-semiconductor-industry-187410/
Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY. Flexible circuits for 3D printing. [Online] Available at: https://www.desy.de/news/news_search/index_eng.html?openDirectAnchor=1623&two_columns=1
Mraz, S. 3D-Printed Flexible Chip Offers 7,000X More Memory. Machine Design. [Online] Available at: https://www.machinedesign.com/3d-printing-cad/article/21836322/3dprinted-flexible-chip-offers-7000x-more-memory
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