Fortune 50 firm buys three Optomec systems to 3D print electronic wearables

Industrial 3D printer manufacturer Optomec has announced the sale of three of its Aerosol Jet Printing (AJP) machines to a “leading media and technology OEM.”

Although the systems’ buyer remains unnamed, it’s understood to be a Fortune 50 firm, with the intention of leveraging its technologies to develop and manufacture a new generation of wearable electronics. According to Optomec CEO Dave Ramahi, the sale to a repeat user reflects the enduring appeal of its AJP machines, which once installed, will now help the client “march down the path to production.”

An AJP-printed stretchable tactile sensor. Photos via the University of Cambridge.
An AJP-printed stretchable tactile sensor. Photos via the University of Cambridge.

AJP’s electronics potential 

Optomec’s 3D printers are powered by two very different technologies: ‘LENS’ Directed Energy Deposition (DED) and AJP, the latter of which provides users with the ability to deposit electronic inks directly onto 3D surfaces. When used to print conductive silver, the technology therefore lends itself to creating high-resolution circuitry, and it’s capable of realizing features as small as 10 microns in size. 

Marketed in the form of the AJ FLEX and Aerosol Jet HD2 machines, as well as on its own as a standalone engine, AJP’s conformal printing abilities have allowed it to find applications like antennas, sensors, medical electronics, semiconductor packaging and wrap-around display interconnects, while attracting the attention of global manufacturers. 

Back in 2018, Samsung adopted one of Optomec’s Aerosol Jet 5X systems to expedite its production of electronics, before Northrop Grumman used AJP to devise a novel method of fabricating semiconductor interconnects. During its experiments, the defense firm 3D printed dielectric layers and gold bridge-like structures onto millimeter-wave integrated circuits (MMICs), which yielded stable connections. 

Since then, Optomec has continued to develop AJP’s capabilities to make it a more attractive prospect for customers, and it patented a UV illumination technology for precisely producing 3D micro-structures earlier this year. The company has also built on Northrop Gruman’s MMIC research, by developing a signal-boosting interconnect solution that effectively doubles the output of 5G antennas. 

Microstructures 3D printed via Aerosol Jet. Image via Optomec.
Optomec patented an in-situ heating-based method of 3D printing microstructures in June 2021. Image via Optomec.

Optomec’s $2M wearables deal

Whether it be health-monitoring fitness trackers and glucose monitors or trendy smart clothing items, there can be no doubt that wearable electronics are growing in popularity and are here to stay. In fact, Optomec estimates that the sector will become increasingly lucrative over the next decade, with annual product sales set to pass the $150 billion mark by 2030. 

One of the main features of such wearables is their ability to unobtrusively ‘stick’ to users as they go about their daily lives. In order to function effectively, these products therefore need to incorporate enough flexibility to allow for their conformance to the human body. However, in practise, producing pliable circuitry at a high level of detail is extremely challenging, thus entering the wearable device arena can be too. 

Thanks to its ability to print onto non-planar substrates, Optomec’s AJP machines are well-suited to taking on these challenges, and it has now received a $2 million order from a ‘digital connectivity supplier,’ with wearable ambitions of its own.

The customer’s order is said to include the shipment of three AJP systems, complete with related software and digital products, as well as Optomec’s ongoing application development support. While Optomec hasn’t disclosed the exact nature of its mystery client’s upcoming product, Ramahi has revealed that 3D printing is central to its design, and hailed the transaction as yet another success for AJP. 

“These recent orders are another example of Optomec’s ability to generate repeat sales,” adds Ramahi. “In this example, we began with some novel developments in our applications lab to demonstrate printing of stretchable circuitry, as well as our mainstay 3D conformal electronics capabilities, which are enabling for the customer’s product designs.” 

Nano Dimension's DragonFly LDM 3D printing technology in action. Photo via Nano Dimension.
Nano Dimension’s DragonFly LDM 3D printing technology in action. Photo via Nano Dimension.

The 3D printed electronics sector may still be at an embryonic stage, but the likes of Optomec have already sought to establish themselves as early market leaders. Nano Dimension, another leading electronics 3D printer manufacturer, has also made significant progress with its DragonFly systems recently, agreeing to work with Fraunhofer IPA to advance their freeform printing capabilities.

Elsewhere, nScrypt has now demonstrated the ability of its microdispensing ‘SmartPump’ toolhead to 3D print electronics onto curved surfaces as well, while in more experimental electronics applications, a University of Texas at El Paso team has developed a low-cost $12,000 AJP system, capable of depositing conductive inks into complex designs. 

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Featured image shows an AJP-printed electrode patch developed at Georgia Tech. Photo via the Georgia Institute of Technology.