Eco-friendly PCBs: Elephantech's metal inkjet printing

Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Credit: Elephantech

Japanese startup Elephantech is pioneering an innovative manufacturing technology that could significantly reduce the environmental impact of producing Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs). If successful, this could transform the PCB industry.

As sustainability continues growing as a priority worldwide, the start-up's radical resource efficiency could give it an added edge over conventional production methods.

Elephantech has developed a patented metal inkjet printing technology that allows metals like copper to be directly printed onto substrates. Metal inkjet printing involves transforming metal into nanoparticles, dispersing them into ink, and using an inkjet printing system to create metal layers after drying and sintering. This replaces the traditional PCB fabrication method that involves multiple wasteful steps of depositing, etching, and stripping unwanted metal off the board.

Credit: Elephantech

Credit: Elephantech

"The basic idea of the existing process is the stacking and removing process. Our process is completely different: with our technology you do substrate, drilling, and can directly print metal, and then copper plating, offering a more efficient and environmentally friendly alternative," explained Elephantech's CEO Shinya Shimizu.

This simpler and more targeted approach slashes materials usage and carbon emissions. Moreover, the pure additive method reduces carbon footprint by 75% and water usage by 95% compared to conventional PCB production methods.

Elephantech successfully began mass-producing PCBs using printed metal technology in 2020. However, Elephantech does not plan to be just a PCB manufacturer long-term. The company's goal over the next decade is to leverage its production track record to sell specialized inkjet printing systems and consumables to transform the broader industry.

"We're not just manufacturing; we're reimagining the entire process. We design the materials, the equipment, and the manufacturing process itself. Currently, we're introducing our flexible printed circuits (FPC) directly to the market as a product, proving our concept before eventually selling the equipment. We've achieved single-sided FPC, but our next challenge is to master double-sided technology for mass production, which will take a few more years." said Masaaki Sugimoto, co-founder of Elephantech.

The startup advocates a revolutionary approach. However, not everyone within the business landscape is prepared to adopt it. Its early customers include Eizo, Fukuda, and Liteon.

The company roadmap involves steadily improving its printing technology and product specifications over the next few years to address wider applications. It then plans to expand the technology to enable additive manufacturing capabilities for electronic components such as capacitors and electromagnetic shielding.