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NASA researching aerosol jet tech for 3D printed densely populated electronic assemblies

Date:2016-05-16 Hits:334
NASA researching aerosol jet tech for 3D printed densely populated electronic assemblies
A group of NASA researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is assessing the potential of aerosol jet printing (direct-write manufacturing) for creating 3D printed detector assemblies. The technology could also be used to print antennas and other hardware directly onto spacecraft.

As we have seen over the last few years, NASA, along with its assortment of partners and contractors, has been at the forefront of many exciting additive manufacturing projects: there is now, of course, a 3d printer in space, and spacecraft rocket engines of could soon be partially 3D printed. Sometimes, however, 3D printing is best used to perfect the smallest things, such as highly complex, densely populated electronic assemblies.

In order to pack all of the necessary electronic components onto a circuit board, it can be advantageous to print the board rather than piece its individual components together. Technologists at the Goddard Space Flight Center are currently investigating the use of a 3D printing technique called aerosol jet printing, or direct-write manufacturing, assessing its potential ability to produce new detector assemblies.

These printed assemblies, many of which could not be made with traditional assembly processes, could be built in a much shorter time period—as little as a day or two—than is usually required to build an assembly. "If we succeed, aerosol jet technology could define a whole new way to create dense electronic board assemblies and potentially improve the performance and consistency of electronic assemblies," explained Goddard technologist Beth Paquette.

Aerosol jet manufacturing builds components from the ground up, depositing layer upon layer of material in accordance with a digital 3D model provided by the user on a computer. The 3D printing technique is, however, much more complex than the kinds seen on consumer-level 3D printers. Rather than extrude and deposit plastic, the high-tech process uses carrier gas and print heads to deposit a precisely controlled aerosol composed of metal particles, including silver, gold, platinum, or aluminum.

A 3D printer of this kind can be incredibly useful for building electronic components, particularly very small, dense, and potentially unusually shaped ones like detector assemblies. “It can print around bends, on spheres or on something flat, or on a flexible surface, which then can be flexed into the shape you want,” said Paquette.

Being able to 3D print in such fine detail is allowing the NASA researchers to create impossibly small electronic assemblies, with wires between each component smaller than they have ever been. “We can make these wires microns in width,” Paquette added. “These lines are very small, down to 10 microns wide. These sizes aren’t possible using traditional circuit board manufacturing processes.”

The investigation has thus far shown that the 3D printing technology holds promise for electronic assemblies, and could someday be used to print antennas, wiring harnesses, and other hardware directly onto a spacecraft.