BotFactory, a manufacturer of electronics 3D printers, been enlisted by the US Air Force AFWERX program to develop a fully-automated desktop machine for on-site, on-demand 3D printing and assembly of printed circuit boards (PCBs). As part of the $750K investment, BotFactory will be working closely over the 15-month term of the project with their partners at the 402th EMXG/MXDEK/REARM Lab in Robins AFB.
Electronic devices have become an embedded element within every facet of National Defense, from aircraft to warfighter’s uniforms. While the technology has advanced dramatically, the process for creating them for prototyping and small-batch production has not. The USAF spends millions each year on PCBs for development purposes, and the combination of bureaucracy and vendor lead-times means hundreds of thousands of lost time for airmen and engineers. Existing PCB manufacturing processes require hazardous chemicals and disposal management. Via the AFWERX/SBIR Program, we offered a solution and found a great deal of interest in 3D PCB Printing and Assembly technology.
The 402 EMXG/MXDEK/REARM Lab are focused on reverse engineering legacy systems in the USAF, often redesigning from scratch everything from avionics boxes, wiring harnesses, cables, front panels, face plates and displays. Fabricating and assembling electronics is a major bottleneck, and while 3D printing is heavily used for enclosures and other elements, REARM has been awaiting AM for the electronics.
BotFactory’s proposals include ideas such as additive manufacturing techniques to print the traces and artificial intelligence to analyze and monitor the fabrication and assembly process. The goal is to create fully-tested and validated PCBs that are created directly from a digital file with no operator intervention from start to finish.
“Integrating Inkjet Printing and Pick-and-Place capabilities for PCB fabrication is something no-one is doing, and we’re excited to work with the USAF to fix a problem that is so critical to US National Security.” said BotFactory Co-Founder and CTO Carlos Ospina. The award comes at a time as the Biden Administration has specified electronics as a critical area of importance, in addition to Congress passing the National Defense Authorization Act with funding toward additive manufacturing of PCB and electronics. In addition, PCBs themselves have become difficult to source, providing a powerful argument for investing in this technology.
BotFactory’s proposed system offers airmen the capability of rapidly prototyping designs from scratch, or reverse-engineering legacy devices to sustain assets on the ground and in the sky. Bringing the factory to the airmen’s desktop means no paperwork and or exposure of ITAR-controlled IP to outside eyes, boosting airman productivity and reducing labor costs. Private industry suffers from exactly the same problems as the USAF which broadens the utility of the proposed technology to the $2 trillion dollar electronics industry.
The prototype will provide support to through-hole components by using substrate-less technology that has been optimized to be more robust to mechanical stress. BotFactory will deliver the prototype and train the AF end-users to use the adapted solution in their operational environment so additional testing can be done in the field before providing feedback on the solution and moving to the Phase III stage.