Seiko Epson develops PC board inkjet technology

Seiko Epson has developed an inkjet technology that can be used to make circuit boards for about half the cost of normal processes and plans to commercialize it in 2007, the company said at a Tokyo press conference Monday.

Mobile phones, notebook computers and portable electronics goods could be made less expensively in the future with circuit boards that use the technology, the company said.

The inkjet method, as the name suggests, uses tiny droplets of ink to draw circuit lines on boards. Circuit boards provide the base upon which different chips and electronics devices sit and are connected. Just about every electronics device uses one or more circuit boards.

In a presentation, Seiko Epson showed how it made a board by drawing patterns and connections in layer after layer using an ink that conducts electricity and an ink that acts as an insulator. The process is similar to that used by Seiko Epson's inkjet printers

The droplets of silver conductive ink ranged in size from about 10 nanometers to several tens of nanometers in diameter, meaning that the company can draw circuits to the same dimensions of boards made by today's electronics companies, according to Akio Mori, head of Seiko Epson's production engineering and development division. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.

The company, based in Suwa, Japan, has made a 20-layer board that is 20 millimeters square and 200 microns thick. The lines made were 50 microns wide and about 4 microns high, and the spacing between the lines was 110 microns. Current circuit boards use roughly the same line measurements and spacing, according to the company.

As the droplets of ink are so small, Seiko Epson believes it can make lines that are 15 microns wide. A micron is a millionth of a meter.

The technique is far simpler than the standard processes used to create circuit boards, the company said. Multilayer circuit boards are normally produced by coating a board in copper and then using chemicals to etch the lines. The process uses patterning masks and involves drenching the boards in acid. The process developed by Seiko Epson doesn't need a pattering mask and avoids the use of a number of industrial chemicals. "This is an extremely simple, maskless technology," said Mori.

As well as silver, the process can make lines made out of aluminium, nickel and magnesium. The insulator ink is made of an organic material that the company won't disclose.

The process is similar to the inkjet technology that Seiko Epson had developed to make very large OLED (organic light emitting diode) screens. In May it developed an OLED screen that was 40 inches along the diagonal, and hopes to produce screens for TVs using the technology commercially in 2007.

Seiko Epson will be making samples of circuit boards using inkjet technology in 2006 and hopes to begin commercial production starting in April 2007, it said.

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