Charles R. Goulding and Adam Friedman discuss 3D printing work at an advanced research institute.
Lowell, Massachusetts has been a historically significant center of American industrial progress. Situated on the Merrimack River in Northern Massachusetts, the proliferation of cotton mills and textile centers led to exponential growth in the American textile industry during the 1800s and 1900s. Fast forward 100 or so years and Lowell has shifted its focus on new American industries in science and electronics. Raytheon, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, moved into Lowell, creating a partnership, in 2014, with Lowell’s largest educational institution, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell (UML).
The partnership has led to advancement, discovery, and breakthrough research in electronic design in 3D printing through Raytheon & UMass Lowell Research Institute (RURI) as well as a large corporate partnership, Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC), a consortium of 19 distributors and producers of printed microwave electronics.
At the UML RURI facility, there is an entire building dedicated to laboratory work to optimize printed microwave electronics. Dr. Craig Armiento, PhD, is the founder and President of RURI and trains students and engineers to advance printed microwave electronics for industry application. The work and training received at RURI are on par with scientific advancements from the likes of Rice University with aerospace, of the University of Illinois with supercomputing, and of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with lighting.
RURI develops integrated microwave systems for electronic circuit boards, connectors, and antennas. These products are highly optimized and researched and have been pivoted with recent 3D printing technology. RURI’s utilization of 3D printing is a part of the proliferation of 3D printing for 3D printed electronics in science and academia.
PERC is an umbrella organization that adds to the Raytheon and UMass Lowell partnership. PERC alone has raised over $6.5 million in private and public funding. PERC organizations represent suppliers in six different sub-industries in the 3D printed electronics space, namely systems, subsystems, components, processing equipment, modeling, and design for Amplitude Modulation (AM) and printable materials.
PERC makes a special effort to pursue practical applications with these companies and orders supplies for the making of transistors, flex substrates, and graphene objects (to name a few practices). PERC chooses from the best of suppliers, ordering from nationally acclaimed Florida-based nScrypt for 3D printers to Japan-based Namix for electrically conductive inks.
RURI Model for Microwave Electronics
To understand the work RURI does, it is important to understand the research headed by Dr. Armiento. Below is an overview of the work that is done at RURI.
At RURI, there is a design process that engineers will use to model electric circuit boards. Researchers create heat maps, diagram mathematical position, and use graphs to start the process of circuit design. UML will then design circuit board structures and will plan for the process of printing out remaining circuitry and board components.
The next part of the process is material/ink development and characterization. As of press time, the 3D printed ink du jour at UML is mainly composed of Barium Strontium Titanate (BST). Before using BST components, there is testing and research of the material and ink. Engineers will perform a range of stress tests and document the results of the tests. The tests measure repeatable performance, shelf life, and temperature stability. If they find materials to be weak during tests, they will work and prepare new designs and undergo new simulations to then again prepare for different 3D printed materials.
The next parts of the process are 2D/3D printing in specialized printers and 3D printers, respectively. There are 3D printing labs in the Saab Emerging Technologies & Innovation Center building for the Francis School of Engineering at UMass Lowell. Designers are taught material and printing limitations and perform post processes to ensure material is printed as designed.
The last part of the process is Radio Frequency (RF)/Microwave classification where dielectric materials and other electronic properties are measured at high frequencies in tests such as the Waveguide Method. This process of testing ensures the microwavable properties of electronics.
Products Produced at RURI
The products produced with this methodology are, as mentioned previously, circuit boards, connectors and antennas. With the circuit boards, the components are based mainly on frequency-selective surface (FSS) material which acts as an electromagnetic filter. The frequencies are modifiable by printing variable capacitors, or varactors, in between circuit elements. Connections for the circuit board use the dielectric inks for which UML performs research. The Barium Strontium Titanate together with Silver I and Silver III will produce conducting material on the circuits suitable for high temperatures.
Connectors like that of the ink are developed at UML. UML scientists will print chip connectors from 3D printers and measure their properties. These connectors have shown promising performance up to certain transmitter frequencies and are being further explored to be used in electronics.
3D printed antennas have also been developed that can be used on most major electronic systems. UML experiments with various thermoplastics and conductive materials and have rooms dedicated to testing 3D printed antennas. UML will print helical, Vivaldi and Yagi-Uda thermoplastic and mold them for final production. There is an anechoic chamber room at the facility to test antenna range and consistency. The work done on antennas have already reduced costs and have stimulated rapid prototyping for antenna manufacturing. There is great promise to further increase the rapid prototyping process and optimize design iterations.
The Research & Development Tax Credit
Enacted in 1981, the now permanent Federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit that typically ranges from 4%-7% of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:
- Must be technological in nature
- Must be a component of the taxpayer’s business
- Must represent R&D in the experimental sense and generally includes all such costs related to the development or improvement of a product or process
- Must eliminate uncertainty through a process of experimentation that considers one or more alternatives
Eligible costs include US employee wages, cost of supplies consumed in the R&D process, cost of pre-production testing, US contract research expenses, and certain costs associated with developing a patent.
On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the PATH Act, making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax for companies with revenue below $50MM and, startup businesses can obtain up to $250,000 per year in payroll tax cash rebates.
The University of Massachusetts System President Marty Meehan credits RURI with providing great opportunities for Raytheon with top engineering talent and products that are produced by this engineering talent. There have already been patents filed for 3D printed ink for microwave systems by Raytheon employees and UMass Lowell students. Raytheon has also garnered the attention of government funding for the United States military electronics. Numerous governing bodies have taken notice and have pledged resources and grants to RURI and the PERC collaborative at UMass Lowell.