Enter Robles and Valle. The pair are also doctoral students and EM Lab researchers who spend many hours in the 3D printing room. Much of the last year was spent trying to bridge the gap between Carranza’s software and the printing process. At the beginning of summer, Robles successfully completed an interface that could convert the circuit design into code that the printer can read to build the circuit in one seamless step. From there, Valle and Carranza fine-tuned the process and produced the world’s first 3D/volumetric circuit using their automated process.
“Getting the CAD, code generator, and 3D printer to play along well together proved the most difficult step,” Valle said. “Typically, when you make a circuit, it’s two steps. You start with a thin sheet of plastic. On top of that, you form metal traces, then put electrical components onto that. What our tool does that is unique is it combines these processes, and it does it in three dimensions with complete design freedom. We are now able to load 3D files, hit ‘run’ and out comes the part. Literally ‘File,’ ‘Print.’”
Rumpf said there is a huge array of applications for this technology, which was developed using funding from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. With the ability to build circuits into any shape or surface, electronics can be built into anything with virtually no added size or weight.
“We can make circuits in any form or fashion,” Rumpf said. “You could put circuits in munitions, in eyeglasses, in shoes, and even in coffee mugs. You can be at a restaurant drinking coffee and, when the liquid gets down to a certain level the server gets notified before you have to say anything. It’s about making electronics ubiquitous in many different things.”
He added that another aspect of this innovation will be the ability for small businesses that can buy a 3D printer to become electronics manufacturers with the ability to produce products where each is customized.
“In the future, I don’t think you will see places, such as major electronics manufacturing companies, churning out billions of things and dominating the market nearly as often,” Rumpf said. “Instead, you may have thousands of small businesses in the U.S. churning out thousands of products, both mass-produced and customized. Our 3D circuit technology may be the first step to change the paradigm of circuit manufacturing. And it may enable us to exploit and incorporate new physics in traditional planar (2D) circuitry.
For the EM Lab graduate researchers, the effort provided real-world experience in the development of a technology that holds great promise to revolutionize manufacturing of circuits. It is something they credit with spurring them to continue their academic careers past their undergraduate journeys. Their breakthrough also offers the opportunity that a business could be incubated in El Paso to commercialize the EM Lab’s multiple achievements, something that would keep them closer to home.
“I want to stay here in El Paso,” Carranza said. “My whole life is here. I didn’t think UTEP had anything like this. I expected to graduate then go somewhere else. I never thought I was going to be doing research that could literally change the world until I stumbled upon the EM Lab.”
Valle echoed those views.
“Four years ago, if you asked me if I wanted to get a Ph.D., I would have said, ‘no,’” Valle said. “Now, I’m close to getting it. I never considered that UTEP had such incredible opportunities for research like what is happening in the EM Lab.”
Rumpf said there is something about his student researchers that elevates the level of work that can be conducted at the EM Lab.
“What we do is extremely difficult and high-risk,” Rumpf said. “EM Lab students spend years just developing the tools they need to do their research. They know when they start their research, they’re probably going to fail many times, because we are pushing ourselves that far. The type of person willing to take on this daunting level of risk and challenge is what UTEP and El Paso have to offer. It’s a personal philosophy, and I don’t think we could have accomplished this any other place but here.”