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Nanotechnology Deployment in the Electronics Supply Chain

Written by: 
Alan Rae, Ph.D., M.B.A.

Dr. Alan Rae, InterNano Contributing Editor
Dr. Alan Rae, InterNano Contributing Editor
I recently had the opportunity to sample several facets of the electronics industry on the West Coast at the APEX conference in San Diego, the CMSE Space and Military conference in Los Angeles, and the HDPUG packaging meeting in Santa Clara. I also participated in the National Academies Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing Industrial Advisory Board, and the iNEMI roadmap Research Committee gap analysis process developing longer-term Research Priorities for the electronics industry. Talk about drinking from a fire hose of information!

I had the opportunity to talk (and mostly to listen) on the deployment of nanomaterials and systems in printed electronics, taggants and packaging. Aside from semiconductor processing where nanotechnology has been the norm for many years, nanotechnology is steadily becoming mainstream in many areas of the electronics supply chain – quietly, without much fanfare, and not as quickly as many of us would expect.

Why are we not seeing the disruptive applications commercializing faster? There are challenges in terms of technology transfer, company formation, the economic climate, and the sheer time it takes to get new materials and systems qualified. In particular, the business model of being a small nanomaterial supplier is broken.  Without market pull and an infrastructure to support the materials (ink makers, equipment makers), a materials maker is often waiting for serendipity to grow the business. “Hot” areas like carbon nanotubes and graphene already have production capacity greatly exceeding demand, yet relatively small volume costs can deter new users. Smart manufacturers like NovaCentrix have put together the materials and the processes necessary for customers to implement their products and processes and develop practical products – in their case, printed copper circuits produced from copper oxide by flash reduction.

The printed electronics business has been stalled for the last several years, but is now starting to move. Challenges have included equipment compatibility, ink availability and, frankly, a lack of market demand. However, the Novacentrix market development initiatives including a sub 5 cent RFID tag (remember the 5 cent tag was going to be a game changer in retail several years ago but we could never quite get there), and the impressive work using silver inks to print conductive grids by Bruce Kahn and the team at Clemson, as well as the growing volume of printing in displays, augurs well for this industry sector.

Nanotechnology now affects all areas of the traditional electronics supply chain – from components (die attach, anti-counterfeit DNA and phosphor taggants), boards (surface finishes), displays (nanowire and other conductive species), assembly (stencils and underfills) to final assembly (waterproofing). In most cases these applications are incremental improvements and often invisible to the user. They come mainly from existing suppliers (not new entrants), and aren’t necessarily identified as nano as they don’t have to be – except in France.

With the strong emphasis on nano in electronics, why have so few products made it to market?  Well, the economy hasn’t helped – many small companies working in this area went under in 2009-2010.  Many of the more disruptive developments including sensors and new processes haven’t really had time to mature yet. In the electronics industry a gestation period for an incremental product can be 7 years because of the qualifications needed. For a metal powder, qualifications are needed at the converter (ink formulator), original equipment manufacturer (OEM), and electronics manufacturing services (contract manufacturer) nodes at a minimum. Lead-free solders are still being qualified as we speak…and that process started 15 years ago. Although OEMs change their models rapidly, the materials of construction are rigorously qualified as consumer reliability expectations are high. New products can almost never get qualified in an existing line, only in a new product line. And if it is going into the automotive industry, their 4-year product cycle is another consideration. For disruptive systems, 15 to 30 years is not unusual. Look how long it took for MEMS devices to make it into airbag sensors – and another 15 years to make it into smart phones. If a disruptive product hits the public eye, though, developments can be fast-tracked – maybe a foldable polymer or curved glass display will create the same buzz that touch screen tablets have done.

Can one disruptive change stimulate another? The growing attractiveness and feasibility of printed electronics and cost-effective large area flexible electronics will be enabled by nanomaterials, and their “mutual aid” may well spur the next generation of novel consumer devices.

InterNano Contributing Editor Alan Rae is the CEO of the NanoMaterials Innovation Center LLC (NMIC) in Alfred, NY. Dr. Rae has extensive experience in product commercialization and business development in Ceramics, Electronics and Alternative Energy.