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The rising dominance of photo chemical etching

Photo chemical etching (PCE),is demonstrating its superiority over traditional metal processing technologies

Jochen Kern looks at the use of photo chemical etching (PCE), underscoring its superiority over traditional metal processing technologies and illustrates the ground-breaking potential of PCE in various high-tech industries.

At a time when technological advancements are continuously reshaping manufacturing landscapes, photo chemical etching (PCE) is at the forefront of innovation in metal fabrication. The PCE process, distinguished for its unparalleled precision and versatility, is revolutionising traditional metalworking methods, which often compromise the intricate detailing and material integrity essential in modern applications. However, PCE transcends these limitations, offering an unmatched level of accuracy.

Understanding photo chemical etching

The PCE process starts with the application of a light-sensitive resist to a metal surface. This metal sheet is then exposed to ultraviolet light, imprinting a precise design based on a photomask. The exposed areas, now vulnerable to the etching chemicals, undergo a controlled removal process, meticulously stripping away unwanted material. This method starkly contrasts with traditional fabrication techniques like stamping, laser cutting, or machining, which can compromise the metal’s integrity through mechanical stress or heat distortion.

The precision of PCE lies in its ability to produce extremely fine features, often down to micrometer dimensions. This is particularly advantageous for complex designs where traditional methods falter due to their mechanical or thermal limitations. Additionally, PCE enables the production of burr-free components, a critical requirement in many high-precision applications. The process’s ability to maintain consistency across large production runs further elevates its appeal in industries where uniformity is paramount.

Superior precision and tolerances

In metal fabrication, achieving high precision and tight tolerances is often synonymous with complexity and increased costs. However, PCE defies this norm by offering exceptional precision at a fraction of the cost and time involved in conventional methods. The technique is especially adept at producing components with intricate details, fine lines, and close pitch patterns, which are essential in miniaturised electronic devices and delicate mechanical assemblies.

The accuracy of PCE is not just in the dimensions it can achieve but also in its ability to maintain these tolerances consistently across production batches. This level of consistency is invaluable in industries like aerospace and medical devices, where even the slightest variance can lead to significant performance issues or safety concerns. The process’s capability to handle complex geometries without compromising the metal’s physical properties further accentuates its superiority over traditional fabrication methods.

One of the most significant advantages of PCE is its material-agnostic nature. The process can be applied to a wide range of metals and alloys, including those that are traditionally challenging to machine, such as titanium, nickel alloys, and stainless steel. This flexibility opens up possibilities for innovative designs and applications across various industries. Moreover, PCE is known for its ability to maintain the intrinsic properties of the metal, such as hardness and grain structure, which can be altered or degraded in other fabrication processes.

The non-contact nature of PCE ensures that the structural integrity and surface finish of the metal are preserved. This aspect is crucial when working with delicate materials or when the end application demands a high degree of material purity and integrity. For instance, in the semiconductor industry, the slightest imperfection or material stress can lead to significant performance degradation. PCE addresses these challenges effectively, making it a preferred choice for producing high-precision electronic components.

A unique PCE approach 

micrometal has integratedg advanced technologies such as glass tooling, liquid resist, and a continuous process flow. These advancements have not only enhanced the precision and efficiency of metal etching but also opened new possibilities in various high-tech industries.

The adoption of glass tooling represents a significant leap in the PCE process offering unparalleled durability and dimensional stability. This is particularly crucial when dealing with high-precision components where even micron-level deviations can lead to significant performance issues.

The use of glass as a tooling material also ensures a higher degree of transparency and superior alignment capabilities, essential for intricate designs. This allows micrometal to achieve exceptional levels of detail and complexity in their etched components, surpassing what was previously achievable with conventional tooling materials. The result is a product that boasts not only extraordinary precision but also remarkable consistency across large production runs.

Another cornerstone to this approach is the use of liquid resist in the PCE process. Unlike traditional dry film resists, liquid resist can be precisely applied in varying thicknesses, allowing for greater flexibility and control over the etching process. This adaptability is crucial when working with complex or uneven surfaces, ensuring uniform coverage and consistent etching across the entire component.

The liquid resist is formulated to offer finer resolution. This means it can accurately define smaller features and finer lines, essential for modern micro-components used in industries like semi-conductor manufacturing and precision engineering. The use of liquid resist also contributes to the overall efficiency of the process, reducing waste and improving the turnaround time for high-volume production runs.

Perhaps the most significant advancement introduced by micrometal is its continuous PCE process. Traditional PCE processes are typically batch-oriented, which can be time-consuming and less efficient for large-scale production. micrometal, however, has developed a continuous process flow that significantly streamlines production, enabling the handling of large volumes while maintaining high precision and quality.

This continuous process involves a systematic progression of the metal sheets through various stages of the PCE process without interruption. From cleaning, coating, exposure, development, to etching and stripping, each step is seamlessly integrated, reducing manual handling and the potential for errors. This innovation not only speeds up production times but also ensures a consistent quality that is crucial for industries requiring high precision and reliability.

Incorporating glass tooling, liquid resist, and a continuous process flow, sets new standards in the field of PCE. These advancements not only enhance precision and efficiency but also open new avenues for application in various high-tech industries. As the demand for miniaturisation and precision continues to grow, the techniques developed by micrometal will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in meeting the complex challenges of modern manufacturing.

Applications in high-tech industries 

PCE is extensively used in precision engineering and electronics, where components require meticulous detailing and exact tolerances. micrometal, through its advanced PCE process, produces complex, multi-layered parts essential for electronic devices like PCBs, shielding components, and connectors. The precision of PCE is crucial in these applications, as it ensures the intricate circuit patterns are accurately rendered, critical for the functionality of electronic devices. This technology allows for the production of extremely thin and detailed metal parts, essential for the miniaturisation trend in electronics.

The medical sector benefits significantly from PCE, particularly in the manufacturing of surgical instruments, implants, and components for medical devices. micrometal specialises in creating highly detailed, burr-free components necessary for medical applications. PCE is ideal for this sector due to its ability to produce biocompatible and sterilisable parts with complex geometries, critical for patient safety and device efficacy. The non-contact nature of the etching process ensures material integrity, a vital consideration in medical applications.

In aerospace and automotive industries, PCE is used to fabricate lightweight, high-strength components. micrometal’s expertise in PCE enables the production of parts that withstand extreme environmental conditions while maintaining structural integrity. The process is particularly suited for these industries due to its ability to handle a variety of metals and alloys, essential for creating components that meet stringent industry-specific standards. PCE’s precision and ability to maintain material properties are critical in producing parts that contribute to the safety and performance of aerospace and automotive applications.

The telecommunications industry utilises PCE for producing components found in communication devices and infrastructure. micrometal’s capabilities in producing fine mesh screens and intricate metal parts play a significant role here. The precision and repeatability of PCE are essential for components that require uniformity and consistency, such as antennas and RF shielding. The process’s ability to create complex, thin, and lightweight components is crucial in an industry where space optimisation and component performance are paramount.

PCE is increasingly being adopted in the renewable energy sector, particularly in solar and wind energy applications. Components like connector tabs and busbars for solar panels are ideally suited for production through PCE, as offered by micrometal. This technology is favourable in this sector due to its precision, ability to work with a range of metals, and efficiency in producing components that play a critical role in energy transmission and conversion. The flexibility and precision of PCE are essential in producing durable and efficient components that can withstand the rigours of renewable energy applications.

Summary

PCE stands as a testament to the evolution of metal fabrication, offering unmatched precision, flexibility, and material preservation. As we advance into an era where the demand for intricate, high-performance components is ever-increasing, PCE’s role in manufacturing is set to become even more crucial.

Jochen Kern is Head of Sales & Marketing, micrometal.

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