April 12, 2013
The team at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) recently demonstrated a concept in which slivers of silicon, or electronic circuits called “chiplets,” dance around under a microscope until commanded to settle accurately on a pattern of circuit wires — each settling at an exact point of contact. These chiplets are part of a new system Xerox envisions for making electronics that take advantage of the laser printer.
“If perfected, it could lead to desktop manufacturing plants that ‘print’ the circuitry for a wide array of electronic devices — flexible smartphones that won’t break when you sit on them; a supple, pressure-sensitive skin for a new breed of robot hands; smart-sensing medical bandages that could capture health data and then be thrown away,” reports The New York Times.
PARC researchers, with financing from institutions like the National Science Foundation and from DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have designed a “laser-printer-like machine” that places tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands of chiplets on surfaces in a specific location and orientation. Each one of these is no larger than a single grain of sand.
“The new manufacturing system the PARC researchers envision could be used to build custom computers one at a time, or as part of a 3D printing system that makes smart objects with computing woven right into them,” writes NYT. “The technology is still in the future. The researchers are years from simultaneously placing tens or hundreds of thousands of circuits accurately in a fraction of a second. And they acknowledge that this would be only the first step in designing a commercially viable system.”
This research has the potential to have “tremendous economic consequences — feeding the emergence of a new digital era in manufacturing, much as laser printing transformed publishing three decades ago,” notes the article. “By replacing the circuit boards now assembled in factories, the technology would vastly compress a supply chain that spans the globe and employs hundreds of thousands of workers.”