In traditional printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturing, chemicals are used to etch away excess copper and create the finished board. However, many of these chemical solvents are toxic and pose hazards to the environment and those who handle them.
InnovationLab, a German company focused on printed and organic electronics, has introduced a novel additive manufacturing process claimed to be safer and more energy efficient. InnovationLab recently partnered with ISRA on a research project called Smart EEs2, funded by Horizon 2020, to create a manufacturing process for copper-based solderable circuits.
Printed, solderable flex PCB with SMD components before reflow soldering (left) and after soldering (right).
Compatible with reflow processes, these novel circuits allow manufacturers to easily mount components and switch to this new technology without buying new equipment. InnovationLab’s PCBs are screen printed and can include up to four layers. The new process can also produce both standard and flexible PCBs for use in hybrid electronics.
An Automated Additive Manufacturing Process
The additive process introduced by InnovationLab uses a highly automated production flow to build a PCB using a multi-layer additive technique. This process runs at 150°C, a lower temperature than what is required for traditional PCB manufacturing.
InnovationLab offers a three-stage “Lab-2-Fab” pipeline for manufacturing PCB, including R&D, pilot production, and industrial production. During the R&D stage, InnovationLab and a customer work together to understand the project requirements and feasibility. During the pilot production stage, InnovationLab spins up a prototype. Finally, in the industrial production stage, the prototype is rolled out to one of InnovationLab’s various manufacturing sites.
How InnovationLab is Rethinking PCB Production
What appears to be novel about InnovationLab’s additive manufacturing process is its use of screen printing to create the circuits that go onto the PCB. At one of its production sites, InnovationLab has a “printing press” that can print circuitry onto copper very efficiently—up to the total area of a tennis court in one hour. Compared to conventional techniques, InnovationLab’s substrates are up 15 times thinner, reducing overall material consumption and waste.
InnovationLab’s industrial production printing press.
Instead of etching away copper to form traces (as in traditional PCB manufacturing), InnovationLab uses copper ink to rapidly create electronics on a screen through an additive process. Copper inks, such as those manufactured by Copprint, have a high level of conductivity after sintering. Sintering is the process by which the copper is formed into a solid, conductive mass after applying heat and pressure. Such copper inks and additive processes will likely become more ubiquitous in the future as PCB manufacturers seek to improve the efficiency of their manufacturing flow.
From Lab to Reality
Using multilayer printing, metal, and dielectric, InnovationLab has developed a prototype with its technology, including a low-power sensor and logger, a printed antenna with a near-field communication (NFC) interface, and a small battery that harvests energy from a printed solar cell.
Some of InnovationLab’s prototypes and products.
According to Innovation Lab’s head of printed electronics, Dr. Janusz Schinke, the company will scale its process to high volumes—a million solderable tracks or more—by the end of the year.
All images used courtesy of InnovationLab
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