Is Apple 3D Printing Electronics?

Moore’s Law began to emerge on the plateau, expecting new technology that could not only reduce the size of microchips, but change them as a whole. As mobile giants compete to pack more features into thinner products, they may turn to 3D printing electronics for this.

However, given the secrecy of product development, users of electronic 3D printers are often kept secret. To understand who is using this advanced technology, some conclusions need to be drawn. This may lead to the question: is Apple 3D printing electronics? The answer seems to be yes. To understand why, we need to look at a small company called Optomec.

Antennas for 3D printing

In 2003, Optomec was able to implement its first Aerosol Jet machine capable of spraying conductive ink on 3D surfaces. The benefits of the technology were clear to hardware developers: by printing electronics directly on the device, one could not only make products thinner, as a printed circuit board (PCB) would not be needed, but the electronics could also fit the shape. devices. For example, an antenna or sensor could potentially curve around the edge of a smartphone.

The financial benefits that Optomec will have were also obvious. David Ramahi, CEO and president of the firm, said: “As one of the indicators of scale, we consider the existing large markets for semiconductor packaging and PCB assembly equipment, where current costs are more than $ 5 billion per year, with more than 10 000 cars delivered annually – and the established base is hundreds of thousands.

To achieve these achievements, Aerosol Jet would have to move from prototyping technology to mass production technology. This was implemented in 2016 by one customer, Taiwanese company Lite-On Mobile, which is responsible for the production of antennas and other electronic components for major mobile manufacturers such as Huawei, Oppo and Sony.

The firm has set up an Aerosol Jet printer to spray electrical traces on multiple objects simultaneously. According to Henrik Johansson, then a senior manager for antenna technology at Lite-On, the company was able to print “sensors, antennas and other functional electronics on plastic components and covers … and even on glass panels and ceramics.” The company has also claimed to produce millions of devices using this technology.

Propagation of 3D printing electronics

Optomec currently has over 350 Aerosol Jet systems installed in some of the world’s largest and most renowned companies and organizations. This includes GE, Lockheed Martin, Google, BAE, Panasonic, Johnson & Johnson, General Motors, Meta and Cicor, as well as the US Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and NASA. It should be noted that in 2016, when Meta was still Facebook, it acquired Nascent Objects, a startup with the method of 3D printing of modular electronic devices.

While Lite-On has since eliminated the 3D Direct Printing service for antennas and sensors from its website, Samsung acquired the Aerosol Jet in 2019 to produce consumer electronics. It came about three years after Lite-On made its bold statements about 3D printing schemes on millions of devices. In the world of smartphone development, three years is a lifetime.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the aforementioned Henryk Johansson of Lite-On went to work at Apple in 2018, just a year before Samsung publicly expressed its interest in the technology. He took with him a colleague from Lite-On Max Landeus, who oversaw the development of antennas at a Taiwanese firm. Together, they created a new development team for Apple.

Although 3D printing of smartphone components is technically possible, Apple is unlikely to use Aerosol Jet 3D printers in production. Of the 350 Aerosol Jet systems installed worldwide, Ramahi noted that “only about 75 of these machines are designed to genuinely manufacture, manufacture components and devices that our users ship to their end customers, which, however, amounts to millions of end products ».

Ramakhi added: “Keep in mind that while 3D antennas and sensors with directly printed 3D antennas are gaining weight, our machines are also used in the production of advanced 3D semiconductor packaging, which is crucial to realizing the benefits of Moore’s Law at the system level. . Developments in this area are accelerating thanks to tens of billions of dollars in annual investments in new factory facilities by leading chip manufacturers, as well as government initiatives in the US and major Asian countries to address deficits worldwide. It was like an arms race. ”

Is Apple a customer?

Ramakhi has not been able to confirm or deny whether Apple was among its customers, and this author has not yet received a response from the technology giant itself. However, Ramakhi was able to tell us about the state of 3D printing electronics in general.

“It’s important to understand that 3D printing electronics is still a new technology when it comes to real production use cases. It is always difficult to force the industry to adopt new processes when it comes to producing products that it supplies to its own customers, ”Ramahi said. «…[C]The current penetration rates are, frankly, infinitesimally small, and although we, as a supplier, expect long-term very high growth rates, in reality we are just scratching the surface. ”

Since we can count Samsung, Google, Meta and Panasonic among Optomec’s customers, can we assume that Apple is another one that has not been publicly named? At the very least, we can assume that the company is researching 3D printing electronics. We can also say that iPhones with 3D-printed antennas are not yet in your pockets. According to Ramakh, the moment when their technology will be ubiquitous in most common consumer electronics is likely to take another ten years.

“… I suspect it will take most of a decade to create 3D printing electronics as a true core manufacturing solution, where we supply thousands of machines a year. It is noteworthy that it will be not just an antenna, but for a wide range of applications, as we see today, ”Ramahi said.

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