Manufacturing the future of highly integrated electronic products
In the world of ubiquitous connectivity and widescale IoT, a design trend is playing a key role in moving electronics into the ‘things’ where digital intelligence unlocks value and opportunity
Production / Materials
The existence of the Internet of Things is far more intuitive today as the digitally enabled ‘things’ we interact with multiply in our everyday environments. Putting this into perspective, fifty billion web-connected devices on the planet equals 6+ connected devices for every human now living. That’s a 100-fold increase since 2003.
While one might think that any new IoT product would fall late on the adoption curve, the reality is far from that—there are many yet-to-be-digital ‘things’ where new intelligence will unlock value for customers and opportunity for innovators. As IoT advances, we’ll see more sophisticated digital tech in the objects and materials in our homes, products, transportation, built environment, manufacturing, and industries.
This IoT revolution is enabled by transformative breakthroughs in electrical engineering that are coming at a pace predicted by Moore’s Law. But unlocking the full potential of ubiquitous digital intelligence also requires innovations beyond the circuit. Taking IoT to the next level depends on seamlessly integrating that intelligence into challenging physical environments—and that demands an entirely new approach to design for IoT products.
We can think of three levels of design integration. For level one design, think of building a custom PC. Pick your boards, pick your memory, pick your thermal management, then select an enclosure that fits everything. For level two design, think of the first mobile phone you looked inside of; most things from level one are there, but it was impressively packed together. For level three design, think of modern cell phones where you can see subtle interfaces between different materials on the enclosure, eliminating the need for old-fashioned antennas.
Highly integrated product designs
That enclosure is an engineering marvel—resisting a long list of mechanical load scenarios and serving as an antenna, heat sink, user interface, environmental encapsulation, and doing so with extreme pressure to occupy as little volume as possible. This exemplifies the state-of-the-art, highly integrated product designs for portable electronics that have paved the way for IoT designs. And in this space, the design and manufacturing ideal is locating the minimum amount of the ideal functioning material in the perfect place.
Serving the needs of the design teams pursuing these ideals is ARRIS’ purpose, and our new design and manufacturing toolbox is how we do so.
Introducing Additive Molding
ARRIS has developed a design and manufacturing technology called Additive Molding that employs optimized composite materials methods within topology optimized geometries to achieve maximum mechanical performance. This manufacturing technology is scalable and, as a result, addressing the needs of a wide range of industry leaders, though we focus here on portable electronics, IoT devices, and everywhere structures and electronics are being integrated. The new design latitudes that come from employing the highest performance structural materials within previously impossible shapes and sum millimeter feature sizes are important for almost anything that moves. Particularly in the pursuit of smaller, lighter, more rugged, better-encapsulated devices with demanding thermal and antenna requirements.
The preceding structural capabilities can be attributed to the unique ability of Additive Molding to align continuous composite fibers along the stress vectors within complex parts. This approach to composite materials is quite similar to the phenomenon of a tree’s wood grain developing to resist the loads on its branches. While these structural latitudes deserve a deeper dive, an additional set of functional latitudes require attention here. While a single material can be multi-functional, it is often the case that a different material would perform a secondary function substantially better.
And, in these cases, Additive Molding opens all-new possibilities by enabling design teams to put different materials adjacent to one another within the same part. The right material, in the right place, in a single part. By doing so, electronics, signal circuits, structural health monitoring, metallic components, damping, thermal requirement, cosmetics, and numerous other product requirements can be solved better than with today’s existing manufacturing methods. One of the most common benefits these “better” products realize is part count reduction through part consolidation and the associated product volume reduction.
The easiest way to visualize this product design ideal is to compare George Jetson’s car to Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter. While we can wonder what all those features and materials throughout Luke’s X-Wing do, you have to admit, George Jetson had a lot of functionality packed into one simple, elegant vehicle! (I bet it cost less to manufacture, too.)
Additive Molding not only enables this kind of breakthrough product differentiation, but it’s also a low-energy, near zero-waste manufacturing process that creates recyclable, thermoplastic composite products. That’s a sharp contrast to the more traditional unrecyclable thermoset composite materials—the old-fashioned kind that most people, those who know a bit about the material class, are familiar with using. Sustainability is a must today. It’s the right thing to do, and most top brands demand it because their customers, employees, and shareholders demand it. This is an extremely important and encouraging trend since mass production can have such an impact on our planet.
Requires buy-in from different engineering disciplines
When a moment like this comes, a time when an important new mass production capability comes online, the product design space has an opportunity to harness new design latitudes and innovate at the largest scale. These are exciting times, but they can be challenging—as change often can be. Additive Molding will be used to transform products in all kinds of ways; however, it will be the forward-thinking design teams that bring about that change. These individuals are the champions who dig in and investigate how they can level up the output of their product design team with new design and manufacturing latitude. It’s sometimes hard when the devices they work on have legacy materials and engineering methods that make deviations from the status quo difficult.
Especially when all those components are packed so closely together that changes require buy-in from a number of different engineering disciplines. At ARRIS, working in partnership with these thought leaders is what inspires us every day. The second line of our purpose statement is, “We partner with the world’s most innovative companies to imagine, design, and manufacture the future.” The first line is, “To advance humanity by creating the highest performance products for everyone.” We can’t do #1 without #2.
Rethinking consumer electronics
The impact of materials and manufacturing innovations will be felt first in the consumer electronics space, where competition and shorter product life-cycles create rapid innovation.
Moore’s Law has brought incredible advances in computational power, but while today’s laptops and smartphones are far smarter than those of a decade ago, they are still housed in essentially the same boxes and casings. The next step is fitting all that functionality into a pair of glasses and a variety of other new value-creating devices. These challenges represent opportunities for new approaches and product architectures, especially as designers address smaller form-factors for wearables.
Additive Molding meets that demand in several key ways:
- Lighter, stronger multi-materials. Do more with less. Improve drop and impact resistance with lighter weight, stronger composite material options with a process that allows for thinner, more compact form factors.
- Ultra-thin capabilities. Achieve thinner enclosures, down to 0.2mm, without compromising strength or functionality. That’s transformative: devices can be made smaller and lighter than with traditional methods or gain additional volume for bigger batteries and other functionality.
- Embedded electronics. Incorporating antennae, sensors, wireless charging systems, and other electronic components directly into composite structures makes it possible to create sophisticated functional parts that require no additional assembly and a reduced chance of failure due to vibration, impact, or other stresses.
- Multi-functionality. Combine different materials seamlessly to deliver multifunctional zones such as RF-transparent windows or location-optimized strength, stiffness, thermal, and electrical properties.
- Part consolidation. Embedded electronics and multi-functionality reduce the need for clips, brackets, fasteners, and other parts. That means greater resilience and also a more streamlined and cost-effective manufacturing and assembly process.
These capabilities transform the way we think about consumer electronics, and enclosures are no longer an afterthought.
Leveling up industrial electronics, too
Consumer devices aren’t the only area where manufacturing innovations are having an impact. Additive Molding is used in critical industrial applications, where high-performance is required.
The award-winning Skydio X2 drone, for instance, used Additive Molding to enable the consolidation of a 17-part assembly into a single, multi-functional structure. The airframe design has the strength and stiffness of titanium at a fraction of the weight while also leveraging a multi-material approach of carbon and glass fiber to achieve functional requirements.
- RF-transparent, glass-fiber window was positioned above GPS electronics to serve as an enclosure that enabled unobstructed communication.
- The highest specific strength / specific stiffness carbon fiber composite material was aligned through structural arms that supported and protected the optical equipment.
- An impact-resistant aligned-fiber feature reinforced the ends of the arms.
- Resin-rich surfaces allowed the molding of both gloss and satin Class-A surfaces without the need for post-processing and with a distinctive pattern and graphic that gave the product a very compelling and award-winning look.
By bringing state-of-the-art materials and manufacturing methods into the drone space, ARRIS is expanding the boundaries of what is possible for aerostructure designers. By bringing rapid innovation and fresh design and engineering thinking into a traditionally slow-moving industry, companies like Skydio are raising the bar.
As another example, Additive Molding allows trusses to be built with continuous carbon or glass fibers for the ultimate in strength and stiffness to weight beams. More versatile than I-beams and other extruded shapes, trusses can be optimized for load scenarios in applications such as wind, aerospace, and a variety of industrial applications where corrosion-resistant composites are more cost-effective than continually painting metal structures. And by transitioning existing industrial users of thermoset composites over to more sustainable thermoplastics, ARRIS is also helping industry leaders to achieve sustainability objectives.
Highly-integrated automotive innovations
The automotive industry and human mobility are undergoing a massive transformation. Digital technologies, vehicle architectures, and even business models are suddenly shifting in a space that is usually characterized by slow incremental progress. Electronics are set to account for 50% of total vehicle cost by 2030, and similar to the economic pressure on aerospace OEMs to lightweight commercial aircraft, leaders in future mobility are reducing weight to improve the total cost of ownership of these smart, highly utilized vehicles.
For designers who want to reach beyond incremental improvement, the capabilities of Additive Molding enable teams to take a step back and look at the design and material ideals. By enabling functional materials to be embedded into a single optimized structure, teams can radically consolidate and streamline large, complex assemblies into more intelligent, optimal solutions for performance, functionality, and overall product desirability. And in a race to what’s next in mobility, the prize for getting it right is extreme.
Ultimate performance meets ultimate scalability
Serving the needs of product design teams pursuing the ideals of engineering and design in materials, form, and function is at the core of ARRIS. While our design and manufacturing toolbox is the key to what’s next, the individual champions that catalyze these design teams are the real change agents. Change is only possible when these individuals successfully address the engineering disciplines, product stakeholders, and organizational team dynamics to enable a more integrated outcome that is fundamentally better than what came before.
This article was written by Ethan Escowitz, CEO of Arris Composites, providers of next-gen composites for mass-market applications including aerospace, automotive, sports and consumer products. https://arriscomposites.com