The global shortage of computer chips is reaching crisis levels, as reported by media around the world (such as this recent article from The Guardian). 3D printers and their 3D printing printheads are not immune. In fact, they risk getting hit fairly hard in the days and months to come, effectively canceling out some of the perceived benefits of local manufacturing, in the wake of global supply chain disruptions.
The shortage in computer chips was initially caused by the same supply chain interruptions that hit all manufacturing segments, however now the issue is much more endemic: the massive global change in habits driven by pandemic, which forced people to stay home and interact and get their entertainment only via computers, has caused an unprecedented growth in electronic chip demand. A demand that no manufacturers are able to address.
In this case, the idea proposed for other supply chain issues, to use AM for onshoring production, is just not applicable. In the future, it could be feasible to massively 3D print electronics, however, the best technology for electronics 3D printing available today, developed by Nano Dimension, is still far from being mature enough for mass production requirements.
This time the issue is not just at an industrial level. It is a massive global challenge that extends across multiple product categories. Apple postponed the launch of the iPhone 12 and PlayStation 5’s have been impossible to get since they launched in heavily reduced numbers during the past Christmas period. Even the largest personal computer companies are not even coming close to meeting demand.
Now the issue is starting to hit 3D printers, which of course make very intensive use of electronics: in particular for complex technologies such as material jetting. The most evident case to emerge is the global shortage of printheads for 3D Systems MJP 2500 W wax 3D printer, one of the most widely adopted for jewelry casting applications.
From New Zealand to Italy, the printheads are simply out of stock and clients are desperately looking for them. Without the printheads, their digital, local, on-demand production stops. Not exactly the ideal way to present 3D printing as a solution to global pandemic supply chain issues…
3D printing solutions
Ironically, 3D printing and 3D printers could also be a big part of the solution. In a recently published editorial, 3D Systems’ Principal Solutions Leader Scott Green explains how 3D printing can help streamline and optimize electronics manufacturing through improved wafer table thermal management, manifold fluid flow optimization, structural optimization and advanced fixtures.
For example, better thermal management of critical semiconductor equipment components, such as wafer tables, can improve semiconductor equipment accuracy by 1–2 nm and simultaneously improve speed and throughput. Increased machine speed and uptime leads to more wafers processed and higher overall lifecycle value.
Green explains that “metal AM is a recognized, validated technology in the semiconductor capital equipment industry. The pressures within the market for optimization, the demand for more equipment, and the production barriers are requiring a rapid movement towards additive. Wafer processing equipment is currently in development – and some even shipping – that include additively manufactured parts.”[Updating]