Nov.19, 2013

On Tuesday, the first-ever 3D printed electronics developed by the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) will be sent into space.

The printed electronics made by UTEP's W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, a laboratory focusing on the advancement of 3D printing, will travel to space inside a CubeSat, a miniature university-based satellite owned by the University of New Mexico that will be launched as part of a resupply mission for NASA.

In the last decade, several research groups have reported embedding electronic components and electrical interconnect into 3D printed structures during process interruptions. However these reported 3D printed electronics were limited by the use of conductive inks, which serve as electrical interconnect and are commonly known for inadequate conductivity.

The W.M. Keck Center researchers took advantage of having access to individual layers during a build with additive manufacturing, and managed to fabricate high current (>1 amp) electromechanical devices through a single hybrid AM build sequence using a uPrint Plus, a relatively low cost 3D printer. In addition they also demonstrated a novel integrated process for embedding high performance conductors directly into the thermoplastic FDM substrate.

Their system demonstrated the potential of what can be fabricated with a multi-material and multitechnology 3D printer. Their current work includes seamlessly integrating several manufacturing technologies into a single system (Multi 3D), including multiple polymer extrusion technologies, micro-machining, wire embedding, pick and place and micro-welding. Once complete, electromechanical systems will be fabricated in a single build sequence without manual intervention. Eliminating human involvement will eventually enable a "press print" methodology where one can start a fabrication of a CAD design and return to a new functional device the next morning.

The UTEP received $9 million in 2011 to fund their research to create printed electronics through additive manufacturing technology. Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, the University of Texas System and the state each contributed $3 million to support the construction, equipment, operational and other costs of the Structural and Printed Emerging Technologies - or SPEC - Center. According to UTEP, the market for printed electronics is expected to grow into billions of dollars over the next decade.

The collaboration between the University of New Mexico's COSMIAC and UTEP's Keck Center is resulting in an electronics structure being launched in a CubeSat Satellite today.

"If you can make 3D printed electronics, that's great, but if you can make 3D electronics that can go into space and continue to work, then that makes a statement about reliability," said Eric MacDonald, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate director of the Keck Center. "Space is a vacuum, and there's radiation, and incredibly wide temperature swings—which can cause materials to degrade. But in this case, we're going to prove that our technology will work."

The 3D printed electronics will be launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia onboard a U.S. Air Force rocket called Minotaur 1.

University of New Mexico Students inspect their CubeSat, Trailblazer. Image Credit: University of New Mexico

A copy of the Keck Center's 3-D printed electronics that will travel to space are currently on display at the London Science Museum in an exhibit called 3D: Printing the Future. The exhibit will run through June 2014.

A total of 31 satellites, including 11 ELaNa IV cubesats designed by high school students will be launched from the Minotaur-1 rocket on Nov. 19, between 7:30-9:30 p.m. EST. The satellites will be ejected and transmit data approximately 45 minutes after liftoff. Over the next few months, they will receive data from their satellites in space.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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