Additive manufacturing (AM) provides many potential benefits such as increased design flexibility, performance optimization, faster production times, and sustainability. However, one significant challenge that remains for this technology is its scalability, particularly for high-volume operations. While plastic AM has seen some successes in large scale production, metal AM has been more challenging due to constraints such as high-cost of feedstocks, labor-intensive post-processing, lack of repeatability, energy-consuming thermal processes, and expensive machinery that needs expert operators. Some solutions have been proposed and implemented to address these issues, however, a comprehensive solution is yet to be found.
A new technique, known as Fabric8Labs’ Electrochemical Additive Manufacturing (ECAM), has recently become a distinct method for high resolution metal AM. Unlike other AM techniques, ECAM does not use powder-based feedstocks or thermal processes. Rather, it builds on an atomic level using a room-temperature, water-based feedstock that contains dissolved metal ions. The metal used is obtained from low-cost metal salts, which are widely available and sourced from a long-standing and robust supply chain.
The ECAM printing process is more similar to stereolithography (SLA), or digital light processing (DLA) printing methods used for polymers, rather than current metal AM methods like laser powder bed fusion or binder jetting. The ECAM feedstock, being water-based and maintained at room temperature, has low viscosity. This allows hundreds of printers to be served by a single feedstock reservoir using standard plumbing parts. This substantially simplifies the management of raw material inputs. Moreover, the powder-free feedstock has notable benefits when producing complex, high-resolution liquid cooling products that are hard, if not impossible, to de-powder.
The room-temperature processing capacity of ECAM also enables printing directly onto a wide variety of substrates, including copper sheets or foils, printed circuit boards (PCBs), ceramics, and silicon. For instance, ECAM is often used to include high-resolution cooling features onto a pre-machined copper base plate, producing an advanced liquid cold plate for data center cooling. Other applications include power modules and high-frequency RF devices which use ceramic and PCB substrates, respectively. This amalgamation of additive manufacturing with traditional manufacturing methods significantly enhances the scalability of the technology, as only the high-value and complex features must be 3D printed.
The high-volume scalability of ECAM has attracted significant funding from the private sector, with more than $73M of total capital investments into Fabric8Labs. The company has used the recently closed Series B funding to establish a pilot production facility based in San Diego, CA. ECAM is uniquely suited to serve applications in the electronics value chain. Early products delivered from this facility include high-performance thermal management devices, such as liquid cold plates, and high-frequency RF components including antennas and filters. With the capability to scale to millions and even billions of parts per year, ECAM has potential to become a widespread manufacturing technology.