European demand drives Precision Micro electroforming expansion

14th March 2016
Jordan Mulcare

Precision Micro has announced the expansion of its electroforming capacity by investing in new lamination equipment and a bespoke plating tank, designed to the company’s specifications. This investment is a consequence of increased demand from European customers from the medical and electronics markets, markets the company are confident will provide a significant increase to its electroforming revenues in 2016.

So what is electroforming and how does it fit with the technology for which Precision Micro is regarded as key supplier in Europe, namely photo-etching?

In simple terms, electroforming is an additive process in which metal is deposited onto a substrate; photo-etching is subtractive, with metal selectively removed from sheet material. Both processes provide a cost-effective route to manufacture complex, thin, feature rich and highly detailed micro parts or parts with micro features.

Photo-etching until recently was deemed to be the metal working industry’s 'best kept secret' but it is fast becoming the go-to technology for the manufacture of thin gauge precision metal parts. It is a versatile and increasingly sophisticated metal machining technology, which uses photo-resist masks and etchants to chemically machine selected areas of metal with high levels of accuracy. The photo-etching process is characterised by the retention of material properties, burr-free and stress-free parts with clean profiles and no heat-affected zones.

Many of the attributes of parts produced by photo-etching also apply to parts manufactured using electroforming, but the process is capable of producing components to an even smaller scale, with single digit micron accuracy and with substantially greater aspect ratios than the 1:1 achieved with photo-etching.

Electroforming manufactures products through a process of electro-deposition upon a substrate or mandrel that is subsequently separated from the deposit. In many ways electroforming is a similar process to electroplating in that it requires two electrodes (an anode and a cathode) immersed in a conducting electrolyte containing metallic salts, and a source of DC power.

As current is passed between the two electrodes, metallic ions in solution are converted into atoms on the cathode surface and these build up layer-upon-layer, micron-upon-micron, to produce a continuous deposit. It is possible, therefore, to see electroforming as the 'growing of parts', hence additive manufacturing. Growing parts in such a process explains why electroforming is often used to make many thin products which can be built up over multiple levels, more economically and with minimal tooling investment than normal metallurgical procedures.

However, the process is certainly not limited to the deposition of thin deposits, and is today frequently used for the manufacture of a wide range of 2D and 3D components, including ultra-fine grids for mass spectrometry, RFI shielding, encoder discs, embossing tools and components for military guidance systems.

Along with an increase in production volumes, Precision Micro’s investment will also allow the company to achieve better process control, enhancing the accuracy of what is already a highly accurate fabrication process. Customers are encouraged to involve Precision Micro early in the design stage to ensure the most efficient and cost-effective route to mass manufacture of precision metal parts can be realised.

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