March 25, 2012

Revolutionary "Smart Wing" Created for UAV Model Demonstrates 3D Printing is Merged with Printed Electronics

Stratasys and Optomec Inc announced March 23, 2012 that the companies have successfully completed a joint development project to merge 3D printing and printed electronics to create the world's first fully printed hybrid structure.

The first project, the development of a "smart wing" for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) model with functional electronics is a revolutionary event that has the potential to change product development in industries including medical device, consumer electronics, automotive and aerospace.

Additive manufacturing first: Electronic circuitry was printed onto a model of a UAV wing, which itself was 3D printed. (Photo: Optomec and Stratasys)

"Bringing together 3D printing and printed electronic circuitry will be a game changer for design and manufacturing," says Jeff DeGrange, VP of direct digital manufacturing at Stratasys. "It has the potential to completely streamline production by requiring fewer materials and steps to bring a product to market."

An Optomec Aerosol Jet system was used to print a conformal sensor, antenna and circuitry directly onto the wing of a UAV model. The wing was 3D printed with the Stratasys Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) process. The electrical and sensor designs were provided by Aurora Flight Sciences, a supplier of UAVs. "

We envision many potential applications of the Stratasys-Optomec approach for hybrid direct digital manufacturing," said David Kordonowy, who leads Aurora Flight Sciences' Aerostructures Research Group. "The ability to fabricate functional electronics into complex-shaped structures using additive manufacturing can allow UAVs to be built more quickly, with more customization, potentially closer to the field where they're needed. All these benefits can lead to efficient, cost-effective fielded vehicles."

The combination of FDM 3D printing and printed electronics technologies can provide benefits over traditional prototyping, manufacturing and field repair processes. Performance and functionality of products can be improved in two ways: 3D printers enable lighter weight mechanical structures; and conformal electronics printed directly onto the structure frees up space for additional payload. In turn, the process has a positive impact on the environment by using fewer materials.

"Manufacturers can implement this hybrid technology in a multitude of applications, not just in aerospace," says Optomec's Ken Vartanian. "This technology can benefit numerous industries by allowing thinner, lighter, fully functional structures that cost less to manufacture."

PC Mag has coverage

According to a spokesman for Stratasys, the joint venture is somewhere between a proof of concept and a joint business initiative. While the Stratasys representative said the two companies are ready to takes orders, "this is not expected to be immediately widely used," he said.

In the case of the UAV wing, combining the rapid prototyping of 3D printing with the ability to embed electronics should save on weight and additional payload, eliminating the need to glue or other affix electronics to the structure, executives said. Both Stratasys and Optomec use what's known as additive technologies, building up the object, rather than carving it out of material.

"If you can print electronics on to it, you can give it intelligence," said Jeff DeGrange, vice president of digital manufacturing at Stratasys. "And that's what's not been done today. That's what's so exciting about marrying the two technologies together."

The wing was first 3D printed with the Stratasys Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) process, while Optomec used its Aerosol Jet system to print a conformal sensor, antenna and circuitry directly onto the wing. A third party, UAV supplier Aurora Flight Sciences, designed the electronics. Stratasys manufactures 3D printers for Hewlett Packard, which it sells under the brand Designjet3D.

If the venture goes forward, parts will need to be shipped back and forth between facilities, which are both located in the Minneapolis/St.Paul area in Minnesota, executives said. The maximum size part that Stratasys can make is 3 feet in length, with parts can be assembled together to produce parts up to 15 feet in overall length.

The Stratasys spokesman said that the resolution of the electronics was at the micron level; typical 3D interconnects are 25 to 30 microns wide by 5+ microns in height, Optomec claimed on its Web page. DeGrange said in an email that the Aerosol Jet technology can print lines less than 10 microns wide, depending on the material.

"The Aerosol Jet process is capable of handling the entire range of materials classes required for Printed Electronic manufacturing: conductors, resistors, dielectrics/insulators and semiconductors, and also combinations of materials printed layer-wise to create differing functionality," DeGrange said.

Mike Renn, director of the M3D Applications Laboratory at Optomec, said that the jet of conductive material that that Optomec's printers use opens up the possibility of printing in three dimensions, on surfaces that are curved and have very complex geometry.

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