With NOVA you can print electronics on everything.

The electronics industry is going through a paradigm shift. For the past 60+ years, electronic design has been centered around subtractive technology, with limited materials options—primarily FR4 or Kapton substrates—with copper for connecting together the powerful silicon components that have been the driving force behind electronics advancement. Electronics products are smaller, faster, lighter, and exponentially more powerful nowadays, but they are still limited by their form factors—innovation has been limited by materials.

The emerging field of flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) is changing the way we think about electronics design. It has the potential to transform the way we interact and interface with devices in our daily lives. The promise of FHE is the ability to create traditional electronics but in new form factors. From devices that move, stretch, and bend with the user, to electronics that can be embedded into injection molded parts.

FHE is a combination of printed elements with traditional semiconductor components, bridging the gap between what we can do with traditional electronics and what we wish we could do. Imagine the possibilities if stretchable, flexible, biocompatible electronics could be printed onto almost anything.

Advancements in both materials and technology are making it possible to print conductive ink directly onto substrates like thermoplastic polyurethane, Kapton, glass, paper, carbon fiber, biodegradable materials, curved surfaces—almost anything you can conceive. Researchers are already experimenting with smart garments that can go through the washing machine, medical sensors that interface organically with human skin, and electronics printed directly onto the curvature of a rocket.

Working with flexible and stretchable inks and materials opens the door to functionality that was not previously possible with traditional electronics. Stretchable ink can function as a strain sensor, for example, a functional property that can be applied to medical prosthetics, remote-controlled devices, robotic skin, aircraft, automotive design, and more.

Until recently, innovating in flexible hybrid electronics has been a very elusive pursuit, encumbered by barriers like time-consuming processes, an incohesive value chain, extremely expensive equipment, inadequate technological solutions, and a general lack of knowledge around materials compatibility. Basically, it’s been the Wild West of electronics design.

In October 2022, Voltera launched NOVA, the world’s first benchtop printer for soft, stretchable, flexible, and conformable electronics. NOVA extrudes conductive paste materials (also called screen-printable inks) using Voltera’s Smart Dispenser to print circuits on almost any surface, including surfaces with up to a 30-degree curvature.

The only option for mass-producing flexible hybrid electronics utilizes screen printing technology, so prototyping on NOVA, which uses screen-printable inks, is the easiest method for scaling to the production stage.

Compared to inkjet inks, screen-printable inks are more viscous and yield higher conductivity. They are more durable, too. Inkjet technology uses low-viscosity, water-like inks. This enables high-resolution printing, but the traces are thin and delicate, resulting in lower conductivity and lower durability. While inkjet technology is perfectly suited to some uses, like diabetes test strips, it’s not ideal for more robust applications. You can’t use thick materials with inkjet printers, it just clogs up the whole system.

When developing NOVA, Voltera conducted extensive market research and beta testing. User feedback was thoughtfully integrated into the design of the printer and modules, acknowledging many of the challenges faced by innovators in the field.

The benefits of rapid iteration are being optimized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There, the Velásquez Group is using NOVA to print carbon nanotube field emitters, sensors, and other space componentry for satellites. Because the group has a NOVA in their lab, they have been able to cycle through thousands of prototypes within the span of a few months. Rapid iteration allows the team to make leaps in progress, achieving extreme performance thresholds like sub-10-micron printing precision.

“Working with NOVA has been fascinating,” said Alex Kashkin, Graduate Researcher, Velásquez Group at MIT. “We’ve been able to construct devices that we would not be able to do conventionally without expending enormous time and resources. It’s just a remarkable improvement in our work, both in terms of surface mapping and optical alignment. And it’s greatly enabled us to construct new devices, and be able to do so much quicker than we have before in order to reach the iteration cycles we need.”

At York University’s Electronics Additive Manufacturing Lab, under the supervision of Professor Gerd Grau, Yoland El-Hajj et al. recently conducted a study on printed biomedical electrodes using silver flexible conductive inks and tattoo paper. The study analyzes various properties of the electrodes printed with a customized inkjet printer, compared to electrodes printed with NOVA’s Smart Dispenser. These kinds of electrode sensors can be applied to a patient’s skin as a temporary tattoo, interfacing organically with the human body.

“I think where this sort of technology will shine is in applications that were not possible before. You shouldn’t fight or try to compete with silicon chips or PCBs. You should try to make something that’s impossible with those technologies,” said Professor Grau.     

Sometimes the equipment and materials that are accessible to researchers and product developers during ideation and iteration are incompatible with the technologies and materials necessary for mass production. If you’ve hacked a solution to iterate with an inkjet printer, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board if and when you want to scale up production, because screen printing isn’t compatible with watery inkjet inks.

Andrew Bambach, Production Manager at ACI Materials, is a key player in the effort to make flexible hybrid electronics into a more accessible industry. As Andrew notes, “I’ve printed frequently with NOVA and use it to develop characterization techniques for further product development for us. NOVA is very different from any other product. The user interface is very friendly. It’s the type of machine that I would feel comfortable handing off to technicians, knowing that they’re going to be able to run the right recipes and figure out how to use it relatively easily.” 

The future of electronics is flexible, and with the right tools at your fingertips, the possibilities are almost limitless.