3D Printing

The additive fabrication of objects by depositing and patterning successive layers of material.

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3D printing has transformed prototyping and is doing the same for mold and tooling production. Today, an increasing range of industries, including aerospace, medical, automotive, oil and gas, marine, construction, and footwear, are using 3D printing for direct production of end parts.

What's New

Lux Research analysts and the Lux Intelligence Engine have added the following recent 3D printing developments.

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A Digital Transformation Framework: Applying Digital Tools to Improve Business Operations: One of the key elements to a successful digital transformation is laying out a clear vision. This involves designing new digitally-enhanced products and customer-centric digital business models to go with them as well as identifying business processes that are suitable for digitalization. In a previous report, we presented a framework that B2B and B2C companies across different sectors could use to create customer-centric digital business models. In this report, we present another framework that companies can use to identify suitable opportunities for digitalization in internal processes as well as the right digital tools to enable that transformation. We use case studies from various sectors to highlight how to use this framework.

The wave is here: Opportunities for materials in mmWave electronics for 5G networks: 5G networks – which promise widely available high-speed connectivity – are one of the hottest technology areas in 2018. In our 18 for 2018 report, we called out that patenting and publication activity in 5G is in the top 1% of more than 2,000 technologies assessed, and in our report on Material Innovations Driving Digital Transformation, we identified communication hardware as critical. Despite this hype, or perhaps because of it, there is still confusion and uncertainty around what constitutes 5G – for a full breakdown and analysis of opportunities and threats in 5G, see this insight. Here, we will focus on the one key enabling technology and the resulting opportunity for materials: millimeter wave (mmWave) connectivity for mobile broadband.mmWave refers to a spectrum of electromagnetic radiation at frequencies between 24 GHz and 300 GHz. This is a higher frequency than typical mobile broadband, which operates at less than 6 GHz. mmWave is promising because it can transfer data at much faster rates than current mobile broadband frequencies; for this reason, electronics and telecom players like IBM, Samsung, and Qualcomm have made major commitments to mmWave. Despite the promise of mmWave, there are still major challenges to overcome before mmWave can go mainstream. From a materials perspective, this primarily means advances in printed antennas. Antennas consist of a few main materials: the substrate on which the antenna is printed (typically fire-retardant glass fiber reinforced epoxy, or FR4), additives to the substrate material that alter its properties, and the electrically conductive printed ink. The main materials-specific challenges are in the substrates – common silver nanoparticle-based inks are largely adequate for mmWave applications. The material challenges are:mmWave antennas require very low dielectric constant (dk) and dissipation factor (df, or loss tangent) substrates. Reducing the dk is necessary to lower the energy needed to transmit a signal at a given frequency. Df, on the other hand, measures how much energy is wasted during operation. At high frequencies, more energy is dissipated by the antenna during operation, which weakens the signal, reduces the sensitivity of the antenna, and generates heat. mmWave antennas also require substrates with very stable properties across different temperatures. Due to their high frequencies, small differences in dielectric constant can substantially change the emitted frequency. Because mobile broadband antennas are exposed to hot and cold temperatures outdoors and generate heat when operating, they are particularly vulnerable to these issues. Moisture can also create variations in properties, adding an additional challenge in many regions.These challenges mean that mmWave antennas will need substrates that are cheap and easy to manufacture to allow widespread rollout in both phones and base stations, but also have superior properties. Basic FR4 epoxy/glass printed circuit board materials are likely not sufficient for mmWave, and currently viable materials are too expensive or not available at sufficient scale, creating opportunities for new resin systems, resin additives, and manufacturing for mmWave. Lux surveyed the innovation occurring in these spaces:Substrates: Current manufacturers of high-performance mmWave substrates materials use high-temperature thermoset polymers, most notably polyimide (PI), polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE), and liquid crystal polymers (LCPs). These materials offer the dielectric properties needed for mmWave but are substantially more expensive than epoxy. There are emerging approaches: For example, Isola has patented epoxy resins mixed with a styrene maleic anhydride (SMA) copolymer; the SMA copolymer helps enhance the thermal and electrical properties of the epoxy. Competitor Park Electrochemical has patented thermoset resins based on polyphenylene ether resins, which it claims offers similar electrical properties to PTFE but better temperature stability. While academic work has been concentrated on more common materials for mmWave, such as LCPs, academics have proposed many material classes, including polydimethylsiloxane and benzocyclobutene. Additives: Overall, the novel additives space for mmWave appears to be underserved. While existing players for 5G substrates certainly highlight their use of additives in new designs, there is not much apparent momentum for new materials. Corporations like Park Electrochemical and Isola that have introduced new resin types appear to be working exclusively with silica-based additives. Rodgers Corporation's recent work is far more focused on development of novel laminates and combinations of materials, rather than additives themselves. The academic space is similarly unfocused – while there are certainly explorations on the effect that additives like carbon nanotubes and graphene has on polymers, there have been none that specifically targeted these materials for applications within mmWave, though both graphene and CNTs have been proposed as inks or coating films for mmWave antennas. Manufacturing: mmWave antennas require increasingly small and precisely designed antennas and packaging. Both commercial and academic groups have begun to explore the use of 3D printing for mmWave, as it allows relatively cheap production of complex structures that can help address both the loss and directionality issues. An example company in this space is Nuvotronics, which has developed a copper printing technology for mmWave assemblies. This company promises higher efficiency and lower manufacturing costs, but appears to have only supplied into high-value defense applications. The use of 3D printing to make mmWave antennas has recently become a hot topic among academics – while the total volume of publications is still small, there is strong momentum in publication growth. Academic work on this topic is broader – covering high-precision metal printing as well as the use of inkjet printing and FDM to create novel antenna designs.Our review of the opportunities for materials for mmWave broadband shows a space with a lot of uncertainty. Existing materials systems for antennas – such as liquid crystal polymers – are acceptable from a performance standpoint but are painfully expensive compared to FR4. This creates an opportunity for new materials, but there are no obvious emerging low-cost alternatives. Clients approaching this space have a few options:Work on methods to bring down cost of existing materials solutions. This is the most obvious play in the near term but presents risks of being displaced in the longer term and is likely only viable for those companies that are already entrenched in the electronics supply chain. Attempt to match existing materials from other applications to mmWave needs. The near-term roll-out of mmWave (starting in 2019 and 2020) means that a full R&D effort to create a new polymer or additive will likely not be commercially ready in time for initial adoption of mmWave. Clients who want to ride this wave will need to work with already commercially mature materials. Target R&D efforts at truly disruptive options: The long timelines of most material R&D efforts mean that any truly novel material will likely enter the market once mmWave is mature and have to displace an established incumbent. Clients who know that they cannot leverage their existing material portfolio will be best served by targeting their R&D efforts at material systems that offer the potential to both improve performance and reduce cost in order to maximize chances of adoption.

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