Albuquerque-based Optomec focuses on additive manufacturing for production with its two patented 3D printing technologies: Aerosol Jet, used to 3D print electronics, and LENS, for high-value metal 3D printing. The busy company has been developing and providing resources on its technologies, as well as growing in size — now with more than 100 employees — and investment, with more than $40 million put into new technologies over the last decade. Optomec has just announced its newest system, the Aerosol Jet HD, the dispense industry’s first 20-micron resolution machine for high density electronics packaging.

While Aerosol Jet technology has been capable of micron-scale innovation for some years, this new system offers an advancement in precision and scalable production solutions that Mike O’Reilly, Director, Aerosol Jet Product Management, told me is intended to “fill in the gaps” in existing production line offerings, as the company continues to work with both “bleeding-edge customers and high-volume users” and is working to “develop additive manufacturing technologies from the lab into the fab.” Speaking last week to O’Reilly ahead of the announcement, made at this week’s IPC/APEX, I had the opportunity to dive into the technology behind the newest offering in Aero Jet.

O’Reilly, who has been with Optomec for nearly a dozen of its 21 years of operation, noted that over the last decade-plus, “We’ve had a lot of developments, a lot of small steps. This is a big step for us, entering the mainstream production market. Those pushing next-generation additive manufacturing will be those adopting this first, and big companies have big needs. A lot of customers come through our labs testing our machines’ capabilities, and I can’t think of one who hasn’t left our lab excited about bringing the tech into their facilities.”

The Aerosol Jet process

This big step is designed to bring Aerosol Jet technology, which saw its first commercial installations in 2004, come to full-scale production operations. While many installations for Aerosol Jet remain geared toward lab and R&D applications, the new Aerosol Jet HD system reflects a “dynamic change we’ve seen over the last two or three years,” O’Reilly explained.

“Our products have matured, and we have more access to more material sets. Large commercial customers were running into challenges for high-volume advanced manufacturing,” he said. “This is a good inflection point where the market was in search of new solutions.”

That inflection point represents a major opportunity for a solutions provider — and Optomec is ready to seize that opportunity.

“I don’t feel shy about saying that our technology is going to be production-worthy in this platform,” O’Reilly told me with confidence.

The technology underlying that confidence represents what he named as the fourth iteration of Optomec’s high-volume platform to hit the market, ready to fit inside standard manufacturing line operations for use in mainstream electronics production. The Aerosol Jet HD is actually a configurable series of in-line digital dispense systems, offering a variety of options to suit a customer’s exact needs in digital dispensing. The HD System works with electronics materials, depositing down to a 20 micron feature size but also capable of larger feature production, from hundreds of microns to millimeters, and can print wide-area confromal coatings in thicknesses from 100 nanometers to tens of microns.

The company is, said O’Reilly, “introducing a next-generation set of capabilities for Aero Jet technology that is plugged into a standard automation platform that is used day in day out at major companies.”

Companies using dispense technology for the production of printed circuit boards (PCBs), printed circuits, flexible circuits, and more could benefit from the industrial plug-and-play offering that is set to integrate directly into an existing production line without disrupting that line, he explained.

The new HD System goes down to 20 microns and allows for the definition of thin layers for coating applications as well as the ability to scale up to wide features.

“In-situ scaling means, in a practical sense, that there are no major overhauls to get from one size feature to the next, just different commands of software and different printhead sizes,” he added.

“Our technology is really about filling the gaps in current production solutions; we’re not trying to displace what’s there. Dispense has been used for many years, and that’s not going anywhere. But packages keep getting smaller, and dispensers have trouble keeping up with those smaller needs. Dispense technology might still work for 80-90% of work for printed or flexible circuits, and Optomec will fill the gap for fine features that customers just can’t get with the current technologies. This all allows us to help our customers get to the next generation of production products.”

The relatively quick changeover in capabilities may come into play in production, though O’Reilly noted this feature may not be as important in these applications as customers are often “running the same materials 24/7,” but for R&D and lab work for large production customers developing their own processes, the easy swap-out capabilities allows for a smooth transition in testing different materials and processes on their own.

In addition to the scalability of the system, a major benefit of the Aerosol Jet HD is its small size.

“The design is pretty compact, which is key in this marketplace. There’s more and more of these systems being installed, and companies are running out of footprint space — so the smaller you can make a design, the better off you are,” O’Reilly said.

The small package offers a big impact in small-scale precision; while competitive systems might put down 150 microns of material, this system puts 20 microns, which allows for less material usage. Additionally, the system was developed to operate for “long periods of time without user interference,” saving on operations costs as well, as rather than a typical run time of one or two hours before switching to a clean syringe system with traditional technologies, this system has been tested at up to four hours running time with the material sets Optomec will be introducing.

“This new generation of dispense capabilities leverages all the work we’ve put into this technology over the last ten years,” O’Reilly told me. “Today we are running in high-volume areas, like smartphone antennas, we have multiple systems putting strain gauges on gas turbine engine blades. We also have lower-volume for folks who want to scale up to higher-volume. All of these have been production-proven — we’re feeling very confident in our technology. Now, real, mainstream production is a big leap for us.”

Strain gauges 3D printed using Optomec technology offer high-performance sensitive operation, expanding on the capabilities of traditional equipment. As Optomec continues to advance its offerings, precision-based applications will continue to benefit.

Enhancing their offerings further is Optomec’s positioning as both a hardware and a software supplier. O’Reilly noted that in his opinion, “It makes sense for the industry and for Optomec to be a process-oriented company, more than just a hardware-oriented company.”

Designed with high reliability in mind, the Aerosol Jet HD System is planned to start (for the standard 100-micron configuration) at a bit less than $150,000, a price that will rise with different configurations. Customer shipments are planned to begin in late Q2 of this year.

Optomec will also be introducing a non-in-line system, which they aren’t focusing on as much during this release; the batch system is targeted at R&D users who can leverage the capabilities of this system as a standard R&D tool, as O’Reilly noted, “There will be some customers who will want the capabilities associated with this platform but don’t care about it from a production standpoint, but for R&D in advanced circuitry and state-of-the-art electronics.”

Additionally, Optomec is working with Micronics for automation. That company is installing Optomec’s Aero Jet technology into their current production automation platform through a partnership, a relationship O’Reilly pointed to as “a real big deal” for Optomec. They’re expecting “good things to come” from this partnership, as Micronics is a recognized name with a global established presence and footprint and Optomec will be able to fill in the gaps their customers are asking for in addressing next-generation problems.

Finally, in this busy season for Optomec, the company has also announced a partnership for their LENS technology. Through a new partnership with HUSUN Technologies, Optomec will be entering the metal additive manufacturing market in China. HUSUN, which has been focused on promoting industrial 3D printing in China for the last seven years, will now operate as a reseller for Optomec LENS Systems in the country. The company has already sold two systems, and Optomec is optimistic the partnership will continue to be frutiful.

Optomec is present in San Diego this week at IPC/APEX at booth #3800. O’Reilly will be presenting a session at 3:30pm today, the 27th, in Hall A, titled “3D Printed Electronics: Are You Ready to Take Your Company to the Next Dimension?” as well as on tomorrow’s “Additive Printing Panel” at 10:30am. Live demos of the Aerosol Jet HD System will be ongoing throughout the expo at the company’s booth.

Discuss scalable 3D printing, production solutions, and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Images provided by Optomec]

 

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