Assembly and interconnection concept for the production of recyclable electronic devices based on functionalized aluminum housing shells
Duration: 10/01/2023 – 09/30/2025
With the aim of designing electronic products to be energy and material-optimized over the entire product life cycle and particularly for recycling, this research project will adapt existing MID technologies for creating electronic circuitry and antenna to a product housing concept for ICT equipment based on aluminum. The recycling of aluminum and the use of recycled aluminum is a great contribution to the goals of the circular economy according to the European Commission’s Green Deal program. First estimates show, that an aluminium housing is more environmentally sustainable than comparable housing made of plastic.
In the project, the use of aluminum in small network devices such as WLAN routers or 5G radio stations serves several purposes. Aluminum is mainly used as a housing material with double functionality as a heat spreader for the electronic assembly. This eliminates the need to use active fans in combination with heat sinks and a plastic housing. The aluminum also acts as a carrier for printed circuits, electronic components and especially the planar antennas. This material concept makes the ICT product very compact. It will also reduce the environmentally problematic use of plastics and composites typically used for this purpose.
Due to the new circular economy concept at the core of the project, a chain of markets and the respective industries will benefit from such a project. The project ranges from the upstream market of the aluminum and casting industry to the manufacture of electronic parts and devices to electronic waste treatment and recycling. With the new manufacturing technologies and eco-design approaches, the project can find a wide range of applications in the electronics and ICT market such as set-top-boxes and industrial computers.
In particular, the project will demonstrate to SMEs how resource-saving eco-design can be practically integrated into early technology and product development, considering the entire product life cycle. It also demonstrates the approaches for a “design for recycling” and a “design from recycled materials”.
The project implements innovative manufacturing and recycling technologies for an effective circular economy. It demonstrates how the carbon footprint can be calculated and reduced by a novel, multi-functional housing concept. The ultimate goal of the project is to close the aluminum-based material cycle without losing the more valuable rare and precious materials (gold, palladium, tungsten, etc.) of the electronic components on the circuit board.
The main innovation is the substitution of conventional plastic housing with aluminium and a potential reduction of PCB area by assembling electronic components and circuitry directly on the aluminium housing. Aluminium housing concept allows many features such as hermetic sealing, high electromagnetic shielding, impedance-controlled interconnections and vias, as well as fan-less passive cooling. The new technology and design concept will also focus on ease of disassembly in order to optimize material recycling at the products end-of-life.
The innovation targets include:
- Adaption of an existing laser direct structuring (LDS) and the metallization process on aluminium surfaces with the aim of substituting plastics.
- Co-designing an aluminium housing simultaneously as an antenna and electrical circuitry carrier, an integrated heat sink (thermal management), and for an easy to assemble and disassemble. This is a methodical aspect of modern eco-design.
- Reduction of the glass fibre/epoxy printed circuit board by assembling more electronic components directly on the aluminium housing.
- Evaluation of the economic and environmental best process option for separating the electronic components from the aluminium housing in order to achieve Al recycling. Three different options will be assessed.
- Lifecycle oriented product assessment, which quantifies the environmental and economic advantages of the new technology and applied designs.
Benefits and economic significance for SMEs
The project has a high potential to strengthen the local electronics /ICT industry in Poland, Germany and the EU in general due to the circular economy concept. Although most microelectronic components are not manufactured in the EU, the novel assembly and system integration technology will encourage local production and electronic recycling. First of all, the new technology concept allows for a highly automated production and a fast time to market even for small production batches. This business aspect is very important for the European industry as they usually order relatively small production batches from the subcontractors in China and Southeast Asia, where these orders have a very low priority and take a lot of time. If electronic component recycling would also improve in the future, a regional close loop electronic manufacturing industry could become feasible.
An important link in this technical and business concept is the lower price of recycled aluminium. The electronics industry is heavily cost-driven and is therefore currently still using inexpensive plastics for device housings. However, the ALU4CED concept takes a multifunctional approach to the use of aluminium. Most of the passively cooled small networking equipment have already considerable amounts of high-grade steel, aluminium or even copper installed for heat sinks and EMV protection. This trend is growing due to the power demand of higher frequency, multi-band MIMO antenna systems and edge computing capabilities of these devices. Therefore, the price for an aluminium-based housing will not considerably increase total manufacturing costs (only in very low batch numbers were the die casting form might be too expensive). A preliminary calculation shows that the monetary material value of aluminium cases is only 2 to 3 times higher. In addition, recycled aluminium is expected to be significantly cheaper than new bauxite-based aluminium as recycled aluminium requires less than 10% of the amount of energy to produce as new aluminium.5 Energy cost amount up to 40% of total manufacturing cost of aluminium.6 7 Therefore, recycled aluminium will reduce total cost for aluminium by up to 35%. This makes aluminum well compatible with plastics. And there are more aspects to this topic.
While under the current (2022) conditions of limited access to fossil fuels including oil, plastic prices are rising, using recycled aluminium makes perfect economic and environmental sense in the medium term. According to a German plastic industry association survey, the price for 11 most common polymers increase drastically by average 65% since the beginning of 2022 and against the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.8 In comparison, the price for aluminium decreased after a short increase by over 35% since the outbreak of the war in February 2022.9 The local aluminium and casting industry will benefit from the project by becoming a new system integrator for the electronics and ICT industry. This industry will also benefit financially from the increased recycling rate of the aluminiumbased products. With larger amounts of recycled materials, the price for recycled aluminium might further decrease and make it more available to application markets. On the other hand, recycling of plastics is not economically feasible, in particular due to significant downcycling and therefore very limited reuse options of the recycled plastic.
In conclusion, the project will development a technology from which a range of different industry stakeholders will benefit along the circular value chain. It will demonstrate our SMEs the method of an active co-design with the close loop value chain in mind. The project also implements innovative manufacturing and recycling technologies for an effective circular economy. Closing the material loop of a bulk material such as aluminium without neglecting the more valuable rare and precious materials (gold, palladium, tungsten, etc.) of the electronic components on the PCB. The industry will learn the technology for die-cast based electronic assemblies. The planed feasibility analyses (economical as well as environmental impact assessments) will provide valuable data for further applications and improvement of the new concept. The project will support this market orientation by developing eco-design guidelines, test concepts, reference architectures, and tools.
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