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Semiconductor packaging examples made using Optomec's Aerosol Jet 3D printers.

Semiconductor packaging examples made using Optomec's Aerosol Jet 3D printing platform, including ... [+] Printed 3D Interconnects for 3D stacked die (l), mmWave (c), and flex circuit (r).

Image courtesy Optomec, Inc.

Moore’s Law has begun to plateau, waiting for a new technology that can not only shrink the size of microchips, but reshape them altogether. As mobile device giants compete to pack more features into slimmer products, they may be turning to electronics 3D printing to do so.

However, given the secrecy around product development, the users of electronics 3D printers are often kept confidential. To deduce who is adopting this cutting-edge technology, it becomes necessary to make some inferences. That may lead to the question: is Apple looking into electronics 3D printing? The answer seems to be “yes.” To understand why, we have to look at a small company called Optomec.

3D Printing Antennas

In 2003, Optomec was able to commercialize its first Aerosol Jet machine, capable of spraying conductive inks onto 3D surfaces. The benefits of the technology were clear to hardware developers: by printing electronics directly onto a device, it would be possible to not only make products thinner, as no printed circuit board (PCB) would be necessary, but electronics could also conform to the shape of the device. For instance, an antenna or sensor could potentially curve around a smartphone’s edge.

The financial gains to be had by Optomec were also clear. David Ramahi, the firm’s CEO and President, put it this way: “As one measure of scale, we look to the existing large equipment markets for semiconductor packaging and PCB assembly, where current spends are over $5 billion per year, with more than 10,000 machines shipped annually—and an installed base in the hundreds of thousands.”

To achieve those gains, Aerosol Jet would have to go from a prototyping technology to one of mass production. This was realized in 2016 by one customer, Lite-On Mobile, a Taiwanese company responsible for manufacturing antennas and other electronic components for such major mobile device makers as Huawei, Oppo and Sony.

LITE-ON Mobile used Aerosol Jet to 3D print millions of electronics onto consumer devices.

LITE-ON Mobile used Optomec’s Aerosol Jet to 3D print millions of antenna patterns and other ... [+] functional electronics onto injection-molded plastic and metal consumer devices, such as smartphone and tablet components and covers. Shown here, a system with quad Aerosol Jet print engines.

Image courtesy Optomec, Inc.

The firm had configured the Aerosol Jet printer to spray electric traces onto multiple objects at once. According to Henrik Johansson, then-senior manager of Technology Development for Antennas at Lite-On, the firm was able to print “sensors, antennas, and other functional electronics onto plastic components and covers… and even onto glass panels and ceramic materials.” The company further claimed that it was producing millions of devices using the technology.

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The Spread of Electronics 3D Printing

Optomec now has over 350 Aerosol Jet systems installed with some of the world’s largest and most notable companies and organizations. This includes GE, Lockheed Martin, Google, BAE, Panasonic, Johnson Johnson, General Motors, Meta, and Cicor, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Energy and NASA. It’s worth noting here that in 2016, back when Meta was still Facebook, it acquired Nascent Objects, a startup with a method for 3D printing modular electronic devices.

While Lite-On has since eliminated the 3D Direct Printing service for antennas and sensors from its website, Samsung did purchase an Aerosol Jet machine in 2019 with a goal of producing consumer electronics. This was about three years after Lite-On made its bold claims about 3D printing circuits onto millions of devices. In the world of smartphone development, three years is a lifetime.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Lite-On’s Henrik Johansson, mentioned above, went to work for Apple in 2018, just a year before Samsung publicly expressed its interest in the technology. He took with him a colleague from Lite-On, Max Landaeus, who oversaw antenna development at the Taiwanese firm. Together, they started a new development team for Apple.

Though 3D printing smartphone components is technically feasible, Apple is unlikely to be using Aerosol Jet 3D printers in production so far. Of the 350 Aerosol Jet systems installed globally, Ramahi noted that “only about 75 of those machines are allocated to true production, manufacturing components and devices that our users ship to their end customers, which nonetheless amounts to millions of end products fielded.”

Ramahi added, “Bear in mind that, while directly printed 3D antenna and sensors are gaining traction, our machines are also being used in production for advanced 3D semiconductor packaging, which is critical to realizing the benefits of Moore’s Law at a system level. Developments in this area are being accelerated by tens of billions of dollars in annual investment for new fab capacity by leading chip manufacturers, as well as government initiatives in the U.S. and major Asian countries in an effort to address the worldwide shortage. It’s become something of an arms race.”

Is Apple a Customer?

Ramahi was unable to confirm or deny if Apple was among its customers and this author has yet to hear back from the tech giant itself. However, Ramahi was able to tell us the state of electronics 3D printing as a whole.

“It is important to understand that electronics 3D printing is still an emerging technology when it comes to real production use cases. It is always difficult to get industry to embrace new processes when it comes to the manufacture of the products it ships to its own customers,” Ramahi said. “…[C]urrent penetration rates are frankly infinitesimal, and while we as a supplier expect continued very high growth rates, we are really only scratching the surface.”

Because we can count Samsung, Google, Meta, and Panasonic among Optomec’s clients, can we assume that Apple is just one more that hasn’t been publicly named? At the very least, we can assume that the company is researching electronics 3D printing. We can also say that iPhones with 3D printed antennas are not yet in any pockets. According to Ramahi, the point at which their technology will be ubiquitous in most common consumer electronics would likely take another ten years.

“…I suspect that it will take the better part of a decade to establish 3D printed electronics as a true mainstream production solution, where we are shipping thousands of machines per year. Notably, rather than just antennas, it will be for a broad range of applications, as we in fact already see today,” Ramahi said.