The electronics 3D printing market is still fairly niche, with only a handful of players offering a commercial solution (Nano Dimension and Optomec come to mind). This does not mean that exciting things are not happening in the wings, with various research groups and startups exploring different approaches to additively manufacturing electronics and new applications. On the precipice of commercialization is Silicon Valley startup Space Foundry, which has pioneered a plasma-based process for 3D printed electronics.
Space Foundry was founded by Dr. Ram Prasad Gandhiraman, a former contractor at the NASA Ames Research Center, and Dr. Dennis Nordlund from Stanford University. The pair met at NASA, where Dr. Gandhiraman was the principle investigator of the plasma processing lab and both were researching atmospheric pressure plasma. When the research team discovered a breakthrough that could lead to printed electronics, Dr. Gandhiraman and Dr. Nordlund left NASA and founded Space Foundry.
A new approach
The young but promising company has brought a new approach for 3D printed electronics to the table. That is, while most printed electronics today rely on high quality inks to produce conductive patterns, Space Foundry’s technology relies on atmospheric pressure plasma to print and finely tune conductive materials onto 3D substrates. We recently spoke to Dr. Gandhiraman about the company’s innovative technology to learn more about the process and when we’ll see Space Foundry enter the commercial sphere.
“I am a materials scientist with experience in plasma processing,” he tells us. “I’ve worked on low pressure plasmas and atmospheric pressure plasmas for a range of applications, from printed electronics, to biosensors fabrication and more.
“The plasma printing method we developed is an additive manufacturing tool that is for printing electronic materials on 3D objects. It can also be used along with 3D printers to print electronics as an object is being additively manufactured.”
The process, he goes on to explain, consists of a patented print head which uses an integrated fluid delivery system with plasma to mix precursors and gas mixtures as the material is being printed. This approach enables the user to finely tune the conductive properties of the printing material. Moreover, the approach does not require a post curing process, which other 3D printing technologies require.
“Instead of relying on a high quality ink and then curing it after printing, we compress all these steps into one where you can take a low-grade ink, tune the electronic structure as it is being printed and avoid curing,” he adds. “Even though the system cost is slightly higher on the equipment side, we really reduce the consumables cost by using low-grade inks, while still ending up with high quality prints.”
Space Foundry’s place in AM
Within the small electronics 3D printing segment, Space Foundry stands out in a couple of ways. For one, the plasma-based process can be used with a broad range of low-cost inks which can be adapted and tuned during the process. For another, it does not require any post curing process.
“Current technologies mostly rely on high quality inks and they also need to undergo curing,” says Dr. Gandhiraman. “The unique value proposition that we have is that we have a process that relies less on ink quality and still produces high quality printed patterns using low-grade inks.
“We also enable things that cannot be printed with other technologies. For example, if you want to print a metal and then a dielectric on top with variable dielectric constant, we can use the plasma process to print multiple layers of material, one above the other, with a variable electronic structure. We also have very high control over the thickness of prints, because we use a dry printing approach.”
Down the line, Dr. Gandhiraman envisions the printing technology as working in tandem with existing AM systems, becoming an indispensable part of additive solutions for electronic applications.
Space applications and beyond
As the process was first invented at NASA—and with a name like Space Foundry—there are inevitably important space-related applications for the plasma 3D printing technology. However, Dr. Gandhiraman emphasizes that there are also many other potential applications for the process which could be disruptive.
“The technology was initially developed for space mission applications at NASA,” he says. “NASA has been looking to use in-situ resources for in-space manufacturing, allowing astronauts to use materials at their disposal to make devices. That’s one big aspect for us. However, this startup is also heavily focused on industrial applications, for a wide range of printed electronic use cases, such as printed interconnects, antennae and sensors.”
Looking at an immediate application for the process, Dr. Gandhiraman tells us about interconnects. According to him, the electronic printing technology’s unique capability enables end-users to print high quality interconnects onto a wide range of flexible, 3D substrates, which could help to overcome existing challenges related to more traditional interconnects and flexible substrates.
Getting the technology to customers
Early on, Space Foundry’s founders had a big decision to make. What kind of company would they be starting? Should they focus on producing the printing equipment, or taking orders for end products, or licensing the technology? In the end, they decided to focus on the technology, developing it and getting it into the hands of customers as soon as possible. This approach, Dr. Gandhiraman explains, was to allow them to ensure the technology was valuable to end users. So far, Space Foundry has deployed a handful of its systems with partners at research labs (including two machines at Sandia) and has received positive feedback.
“The initial goal is to stay as an equipment manufacturer,” he says. “ We want to get the equipment into the hands of our customers. So far, it’s been mostly alpha and beta testing the products with university and federal labs. We haven’t made any deliveries to corporate customers yet.”
Space Foundry is planning an official launch for its electronics 3D printing process as soon as next year, after which it hopes corporate manufacturers will adopt its system. As part of its corporate entry, the young company will focus on specific verticals with a view for mass manufacturing. For high value, low volume manufacturing, Space Foundry wants to keep it in house.
“Now we are in the stage where we can really ramp up manufacturing and take it towards a vertical,” Dr. Gandhiraman explains. “We have already started talking to some corporate players here in Silicon Valley. A lot of corporates are interested in exploring this technology for a wide range of applications. Some are interested in printing conductors on flexible substrates, some are interested in medical device applications, others in automotive and aerospace.”
Dr. Gandhiraman concludes: “Because we didn’t have extensive experience in the additive manufacturing industry, we approached this without any bias. We really just wanted to get the technology out there to see if people see value. It’s been very promising so far and we are glad that the customers are finding the technology useful.”