Aerosol Jet 5X 3D Printer
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on April 28, 2016 |
The Aerosol Jet 5X is the only system capable of depositing fine inks onto 3D objects.

Optomec’s Aerosol Jet series were the first on the market with the ability to spray conductive inks onto 3D objects for electronics prototyping.  Many users are finding these systems valuable for prototyping, with some customers reporting using the machines for manufacturing finished products. The Aerosol Jet 5X takes this process and gives it five-axis motion so that users can 3D-print electronics onto three-dimensional objects.

The Aerosol Jet 5X system from Optomec.(Image courtesy of Optomec.)
The Aerosol Jet 5X system from Optomec.(Image courtesy of Optomec.)


How the Aerosol Jet 5X Works

Optomec’s unique technology works by first atomizing a given 3D-printing material into a mist. In a separate module, this mist is subsequently focused and deposited with an inert gas by spraying the material through a thin nozzle onto a substrate, which must be about 5 mm (0.20 in) from the nozzle. 

The types of materials that can be used with the system range from metal inks, resistor inks and nonmetallic conductors to dielectrics, adhesives, semiconductors and even DNA and proteins for specialty bioprinting. However, in the case of many metal inks, the 3D-printed objects must be heated in an oven for final curing.

A phasedarray antenna 3D printed by the Aerosol Jet 5X system. (Image courtesy of Optomec/YouTube.)
A phasedarray antenna 3D printed by the Aerosol Jet 5X system. (Image courtesy of Optomec/YouTube.)

The ability to deposit materials in this way allows for 3D printing electronic circuitry and sensors directly onto an object with a high degree of precision and detail and without the masks and resists typically associated with electronics printing. The Aerosol Jet system can achieve line widths finer than 10 microns with a 20-micron pitch and layers as thin as 50 nanometers.

The Aerosol Jet 200 has two-axis motion and is described as an R&D solution for developing and testing conductive inks. The Aerosol Jet 300 has three-axis motion and the Aerosol Jet 5X, released in 2014, greatly expands the functionality of the technology with full five-axis motion. 

The newest system is capable of spraying materials on nonplanar surfaces, allowing complex three-dimensional objects to be coated with functional inks. This is particularly useful for manufacturing electronics, as very fine circuitry and sensors can be directly written onto the surfaces of objects, ultimately enabling the shrinking of electronic devices as these components can take up less and less space. Henrik Johansson, Manager of Technology Development for Antennas at Lite-On Mobile, has been heavily involved in the implementation and development of Lite-On's conductive printing efforts.  Johansson values the machine's "ability to print in complex shapes on 3D surfaces and on many type of substrates" and the "ability to use high conductivity inks (nano Ag inks) with high solid loading."

A quad setup of Marathon print modules allows for batch production of 3D-printed electronics. (Image courtesy of Optomec/YouTube.)
A quad setup of Marathon print modules allows for batch production of 3D-printed electronics. (Image courtesy of Optomec/YouTube.)

The Aerosol Jet 5X comes equipped with the “Sprint” print module, which is designed more for prototyping and analyzing materials. For low-volume production, users can purchase the “Marathon” print module. 

Available in single, dual and quad setups, the Marathon can either be implemented in a custom setup that may combine electronics printing with another manufacturing process or with four modules on the same machine, enabling the jetting of materials onto four substrates at once.

The Aerosol Jet 5X in Action

So far, this technology has been demonstrated as most useful for prototyping and short-run production of electronics, particularly for creating antennas for mobile devices. Most recently, Optomec customer Lite-On Mobile Mechanical SBG announced the use of several Aerosol Jet 5X systems for the mass manufacturing of a variety of electronic devices.

The company began implementing the technology for prototyping purposes when manufacturing communication, personal care and automotive products for their customers. Soon, Lite-On recognized the possibility of using the system for mass production, installing multiple machines at their facility in Guangzhou, China. 

The machines are currently operating 24/7, according to the company, allowing for the production of millions of electronic devices, including smartphones and tablets, with 3D-printed sensors, antennas and other components.

The Aerosol Jet 5X configured to host multiple platforms for 3D-printing electronics onto multiple electronic devices. (Image courtesy of Optomec.)
The Aerosol Jet 5X configured to host multiple platforms for 3D-printing electronics onto multiple electronic devices. (Image courtesy of Optomec.)

Not only has this reduced manufacturing and created a more streamlined production process, according to the company, the technology has also led to the development of Lite-On’s 3D Direct Print (3DP) solution, in which the Taiwanese company offers electronics 3D printing as a service to its customers.

Of the Aerosol Jet 5X, Johansson said, "Some of the benefits of the system are good flexibility for many types of applications, as well as line width and thickness." The biggest disadvantage was the cost of the machine. Johannson said, "The drawbacks include the relatively high system price. We would also like to see some increased system output so that we can run it more quickly than we are capable of today."

Manufacturer: Optomec

Model: Aerosol Jet 5X

Material: Metal inks, resistor inks, nonmetallic conductors, dielectrics, adhesives, semiconductors and other low-viscosity inks

Build Envelope: 200 x 300 x200 mm (8 x 12 x 8 in)

Layer Thickness: 50 nm (2 micro inches)

Printer Dimensions: 1,020 x 1,375 x 2,240 mm (40 x 54 x 88 in)

Printer Weight: 835 kg (1,841 lbs)

Recommended Uses: Prototyping and short-run manufacturing of electronic devices

Machine Price: $495,000 (the Marathon print module is $95,000)

Who Should Use the Aerosol Jet 5X:

The Aerosol Jet 5X is the first 3D printer on the market capable of the writing of fine electronics onto three-dimensional surfaces. Any business that needs to rapidly prototype or produce shortruns of custom electronic devices may find themselves turning to this machine.

Why Wouldn't You Use the Aerosol Jet 5X:

If you are part of a small operation that needs only to prototype a small number of electronics without extremely fine details, this machine will likely prove to be much too expensive.

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