Consumption & Production
Can 3D Printing Solve the Automotive Chip Shortage?
The automotive chip shortage has been a real gut punch to the industry, causing production suspensions, reduced revenue, and enormous order backlogs. The kicker is that some sources, like Boston Consulting Group, predict the lack of electric parts and sensors will likely persist as late as 2026!
While there has been a political will to ramp up production to adjust to the supply and demand, it will take time. Meanwhile, industries are looking for new solutions to solve the automotive chip shortage dilemma.
The pandemic and the supply chain
It took the pandemic to lay bare the instability of semiconductor supply chains. And although the consumer chip demand may have reached a saturation point, automotive semiconductor demand will only continue to rise.
As industry players scramble for solutions some are asking, isn’t there a silver bullet to fix this? Can’t 3D printing help the solve the automotive chip shortage?
The answer isn’t simple.
“The technology does not exist to simply print the microscopic pieces that make up the chips themselves,” writes Velo3D CEO, Benny Buller in an article for Nasdaq. “3D printing works at the 1/10th of a millimeter scale. Semiconductor fabrication plants work at the nanometer scale (one billionth of a meter).”
Why does it take so long to make a semiconductor?
A key difficulty to any quick fix from 3D printing requires a greater understanding of the manufacturing process.
While there are hundreds of companies designing semiconductors, there are fewer than two-dozen global manufacturers. A slowdown from any one of them has an immediate effect.
Months-long manufacturing process
Compounding the problem for semiconductor companies is the months-long process required to make a single chip. So adjusting to a sudden demand change takes inordinate amounts of time. This forces chip manufacturers to maintain maximum operational capacity at all times.
GlobalFoundries, one of the main sources of U.S. semiconductor production, runs 24 hours a day. It produces 500,000 intricate silicon wafers annually, according to the Washington Post. Makers then cut these into individual chips.
Furthermore, there are about 700 process steps along the way with a multitude of patterns printed, etched and stacked on one another.
Simply put, 3D printers aren’t yet equipped to deal with this level of complexity or scale. But it still may have its place in helping the industry. Here’s how.
3D printing can help the auto industry right now
Semiconductor fabrication plants, also known as fabs, house thousands of complex machines with intricate parts. Since they operate at a breakneck pace, a malfunction of any kind can be extremely detrimental. Sourcing replacement parts for specialized machines can put manufacturers in a real bind.
“Here, additive manufacturing (3D printing) can step in,” Buller writes. “3D metal printing allows for many of these parts to be created quickly. Fab operators should not have to wait for factories overseas to create and ship replacement parts. With 3D printing, they can have parts created by a service provider nearest to them and delivered right away.”
In this way, according to Buller, semiconductor manufacturers can design better fabs that make better chips with fewer failures with quicker recoveries.
However, the real question remains. When will 3D printing be able to produce semiconductors?
There has been progress.
3D printing semiconductor advancements
While 3D printing semiconductors for automobiles isn’t in the cards yet, advances are being made in the area of flexible circuits, according to AZO Materials.
One collaboration in Germany between the University of Hamburg and Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) developed a process applicable to 3D printing that could be utilized to make transparent and bendable electronic circuits.
The circuits are tightly woven silver nanowires formed in suspension and placed in several flexible, transparent polymers, according to AZO Materials. This technology could pave the way for printing LEDs, solar panels, electronic tools, and even flexible capacitors.
Other collaborations yielding developments include one between researches from the U.S. Air Force and American Semiconductor, which produced a flexible silicon-polymer semiconductor using 3D printing.
Apparently, the chip is bendable and has a microcontroller and a built-in memory that can control and gather data for analysis.
The most immediate applications of these chips are for electronic wearables. But the advances are helping the manufacturing community switch over to flexible capabilities that can be integrated with low-cost 3D-printed circuitry.
3D printing can currently print circuit boards (PCBs) with interconnected frameworks and embedded components. This opens up the possibility to use it to produce integrated circuits and other elements into a PCB leaving AZO to conclude that 3D printing in the semiconductor industry is inevitable.
The future of 3D printing
While the first patent for 3D printing was filed in the 1970s, significant advances were made in the 90s. However, its true potential began to emerge in the new millennium.
As it stands now, researchers are exploring printing with advanced materials including ceramics and thermoset polymers. These materials apply to printed circuits. In this way, additive manufacturing will increasingly insert itself in the automotive sector.
However, as with most new technologies, it will likely take time before 3D printing is ready to disrupt the industry. AZO predicts makers will ultimately use printing technology to challenge more difficult problems than addressing chip shortages by tackling the field of design itself.
Until then, automotive manufacturers will have to address the shortages in more traditional ways.