Breakthrough spotlight: self-assembling electronic devices

A new break-through in building small electronic components have been achieved not only with fine accuracy and ease, but can be done rapidly.  (here) Specifically, the new method is able to self-assemble electronic components by exploiting the effects of gravity and the interactions of oil and water.  You can read the specifics in the article, but the results, at least for creating a solar panel is this:

The conveyor belt process is to simply dunk the device blank through the boundary and draw it back slowly; the sheet of elements rides up along behind it, each one popping neatly into place as the solder attracts its gold contact.

The team made a working device comprising 64,000 elements in just three minutes.

This leaves two things to be desired: it is automated and can be made very quickly. Already you can see the economic benefits of this. It is cheap as it will not require any manual labor for production and the quality is unprecedented, thanks to the self-assembling nature of the process. Do something like that in a rapid “just-in-time” approach for demand and you have a huge downward pressure on the marginal cost for assembling an electronic component.

This report had me think on a subject that I come across at work a lot: high-tech manufacturing. Unlike traditional manufacturing, especially through the nineties, high tech semi-conductor manufacturing has been booming. Lately, however, that is not the case. High-tech manufacturing is getting hit hard by depressed chip prices thanks to increased competition from low-wage foreign labor costs. With an automated process such as this applied to a range of different electronic component manufacturing, it could be a positive indicator for the high tech manufacturing sector. It already is a reality for creating solar panels at a fraction of the cost, which is great for promoting demand for solar panels in the private market. And let’s not forget the potential for this technology and the possibilities it invites:

The approach should also work for almost any material, stiff or flexible, plastic, metal or semiconductor – a promising fact for future display and imaging applications.

Babak Parviz, a nano-engineering professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the technique is a “clear demonstration that self-assembly is applicable across size scales”.

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