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Printer Magic

Coming: 3-D electronic parts from your ink-jet printer.

By Todd R. Weiss
January 26, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - You're driving across Iowa on a steamy, sunny Fourth of July weekend when the car dies and coasts to the side of the road, the victim of an electronic part gone bad inside the alternator.
Luckily, there's a 24-hour repair shop in Iowa City where they can "print" you a new circuit board on the spot using a specially equipped printer that sprays out layers of inklike polymers, with all the electronic connections and transistors laid out in the proper arrays.
A mechanic installs the part, and you're back on your way with a repaired alternator.
A wild dream? Not necessarily.
Today, scientists at universities and companies are working on just such technologies, where specialized commercial ink-jet printers can be used to create 3-D parts using processes that spray liquid plastics, one layer stacked atop another, to build up a component.
So far, researchers are able to create small transistors using 3-D printing methods, while specialized industries already exist that can print prototype, one-off parts.
But while experimental transistors and prototype parts are being created separately today in labs, the technology still isn't here for printers to build electrical circuits integrated into completed, working parts.
That technological jump could come in five or more years, says John Fitch, a mechanical engineer at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California. "That's a vision I'm sure some people are trying out right now," he says. Eventually, technology that allows devices to print out 3-D parts with integral electrical capabilities could have limitless uses, replacing expensive silicon-based electrical components with parts made from cheap plastics.
The technical challenges are still large, however, including the potential need for many different kinds of materials to be printed, from plastics to steel to aluminum or even carbon fiber. "It means that everybody would have to have a printer that has lots of different cartridges or lots of different printers," Fitch says. "The chemistry of that is pretty complicated."
Rather than ending up as consumer items, such printers could ignite an industry in photocopying shops or other businesses where users could send a parts order by e-mail and pick it up or have it shipped to them, he says.
Smart 'Paper,' Labels
Plastic Logic Ltd. in Cambridge, England, which today creates ink-jet-printed plastic transistors to make active-matrix backplanes for flat-panel displays, foresees a host of new markets for the technology.
"Absolutely we see the large markets in things other than in prototyping," says spokesman Cranch Lamble.
"We've got a road map to work on two things," he says. They are "electronic paper" video displays - thin, flexible display devices -



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