The very small is big in manufacturing
Small means big business these days. Consumers are demanding ever smaller, more portable devices, with extra features, better performance and energy efficiency. But squeezing everything into smaller packages is a huge manufacturing challenge. To help, European researchers have developed ways to produce the micro components needed for these smaller devices.
The work of two EU-funded projects, COTECH ('Converging technologies for micro systems manufacturing') and MULTILAYER ('Rolled multi material layered 3D shaping technology') has resulted in manufacturing tools, processes and applications that are helping to give European companies a competitive edge in producing high-performance, miniature components.
Over time, such innovations could lead to reduced costs for manufacturers, lower prices for consumers and 'greener', more energy efficient products, among other benefits.
Scaling down to micro
The COTECH team developed new and advanced processing steps, production machines and tool-making techniques for the manufacture of polymer-based micro systems. The result was eight industrial demonstrators, which included miniaturised components for a mobile phone flash light, dental brackets and a diagnostic chip for biomedical applications.
“European manufacturers are facing demand for smaller and smaller devices showing ever-smaller features in the range of sub-micron and even nanometre scale,” says COTECH project manager Helmut Loibl of Austria-based FOTEC. “It is leading to demand for polymer based micro-mechanical systems with complex shapes and even multi-material components that could not be produced with available techniques before the COTECH project.”
COTECH has resulted in several state-of-the-art commercial applications from the project’s partners. Sarix in Switzerland is selling a new, highly accurate micro-machining platform combining two tooling processes in one high-precision machine while France’s Autodesk has developed software for 3D injection compression moulding simulations.
Another partner, Alicona Imaging in Austria, is selling a small, light and high-speed system for micro metrology, used for measurements during micro-manufacturing processes. And Wittmann Battenfeld, also in Austria, has so far sold more than 70 new-generation micro-injection moulding machines that combine the advantages of micro-injection moulding and hot embossing via an entirely new hybrid process.
“For all applications, work carried out in COTECH has shortened the time to market, reduced costs and has even helped evolve the vision of modular desktops or micro factories,” Loibl says.
Printing 3D micro devices
Meanwhile, the team behind the MULTILAYER project focused on solutions for the large-scale production of micro devices based on technology that prints 3D shapes using overlapping and structured ceramic tapes.
“By itself, the technology is not totally new but the development of several techniques for structuring and printing a wide variety of ceramics enables us to address several types of applications, not only electronics,” says Luc Federzoni, MULTILAYER’s coordinator at France’s Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA).
The project team’s work led to a significant reduction in production costs compared to other solutions.
“A typical decrease of about 30% has been observed for many demonstrators when the scale of production is great enough,” Federzoni says.
Among the 3D micro parts manufactured as demonstrators are a heat sink (a cooling component) for advanced automotive lighting systems, a micro-fluidic ceramics system for biomedical components and a millimetre-wave wireless receiver.
Some of the demonstrators, and the technology behind their development, have led to industrial products now being manufactured by MULTILAYER’s partners.
For example, car manufacturer FIAT's research centre in Italy, Centro Ricerche Fiat, is bringing to market LED lighting systems based on MULTILAYER technology, while ceramics specialist Keranor in Norway is producing ceramic tapes for heat sink applications.
“For all other applications, further work will be conducted in the future, leading to the industrialisation of the technology,” Federzoni says.
COTECH was coordinated by FOTEC and received EUR 6 million in EU funding. MULTILAYER, coordinated by CEA, received EUR 6.5 million in EU funding. Both projects were completed in October 2012.