A new Hampshire company, putting down Silicon Valley roots, is developing nano-printing technologies that could eventually make better electronics...

Share story



SAN JOSE, Calif. — A New Hampshire company, putting down Silicon Valley roots, is developing nano-printing technologies that could eventually make better electronics, labeling and even the foundation for human skin cells.


The business, called Dimatix, has about 50 employees in its Santa Clara offices, where it is developing ink-jet printing technologies for a wide range of possible uses. Some futuristic uses of Dimatix’s supersmall ink jets could include making semiconductor interconnects, or electronic screen displays so thin and flexible they wrap around a column in a department store.


Dimatix is developing a new generation of print heads that can deposit microscopic droplets of conductive ink, or even droplets of organic materials. They call these nano-particle inks, because they are at the atomic level in size, or smaller than a virus. If you took 1,000 nano-particles and lined them up side by side, they would equal the width of a human hair.


“It boggles the mind when you think of what you could create at the atomic scale,” said Bob Parker, an analyst with Manufacturing Insights, a market-research firm, part of IDC. “If this technology proves effective, especially something as radical as this, the mind swims.”


In the future, Dimatix expects its printing technologies to be used in the life sciences, where scientists could re-create human cells by layering down DNA substrates.


The notion is not inconceivable. Last year, scientists at the Shared Tissue Engineering Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina used old Hewlett-Packard and Canon ink-jet printers to shoot out proteins instead of ink, and captured the tissue on specialized gel instead of paper. Eventually, this research could lead to re-creating skin for burn victims or organs.


“Life sciences is obviously an interesting area,” said John Batterton, chief executive of Dimatix. “I look at this as a field of gold nuggets out there.”



New operation



Dimatix is a new division of Markem, a privately held developer of labeling and identification technologies, including radio-frequency-identification tags, systems and software. Spectra, an industrial ink-jet printing business that spawned Dimatix, will stay in New Hampshire as a division of Dimatix. Spectra develops ink-jet print heads used in industrial printing equipment to make posters, billboards and other large-format graphics.


Its ink-jet printing technologies are similar to those developed for consumers by Hewlett-Packard, Canon and others. But Spectra uses a technique for ink-jet printing, called piezoelectric, which does not heat the ink droplet before it is released. That makes the technology conducive for food printing, drug printing and other organic materials.


Dimatix is taking some of the techniques used with the piezoelectric ink-jet printing, particularly the ability to jet fluids, one drop at a time, and combining them with MEMs technology. MEMs, or microelectro-mechanical machines, is an enabling technology initially used to create miniature mechanical devices. Dimatix is using MEMs to fabricate ink-jet print heads that are precisely defined with accurately located nozzles.


Initially, Dimatix is focusing on the electronics market. It is already manufacturing a new-generation print head that can enable almost any digital or chemical fluid to be jetted onto any surface. Dimatix process can deposit drops of conductive “ink” only where it is needed on a surface, which saves the time and expense of etching and then washing of electronic circuits. Using this conductive ink would also reduce waste and the use of a lot of expensive chemicals.



Cellphone displays



Dimatix is developing a product to help Philips Electronics manufacture flat-panel displays for cellphones. Philips is using Dimatix print heads to place light-emitting polymers onto the flat-panel displays.


The Dimatix ink-jet head can put down 100,000 drops a second. “If we have a device with 300 of these jets, we can put down 30 million drops per second,” said Andreas Bibl, chief technology officer. “That is equivalent to the rate of a 30-megabit-per-second high-speed DSL line.”


Bibl said Dimatix is not trying to replace or make semiconductors. Instead, Dimatix is focusing on the lower-level chips that talk to the main electronics, the interconnect devices.


“These MEMs nozzles are much more precise,” said Marlene Bourne, vice president of research at EmTech Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “This can also be good for coating pharmaceuticals, it’s much more uniform.”



RFID use



Another big, near-term application, said Parker, is RFID. As manufacturers begin to use radio-frequency-identification tags for shipping products, they would rather imprint the electronic tag with the bar code into the packaging material itself, rather than slap on a costly label.


“That’s a huge market for them,” Parker said. “It might be a good interim application.”


No revenue information is available for the Spectra unit, Dimatix or parent Markem. Company executives wouldn’t disclose their budget, or how much money Markem is investing. Batterton, however, said Dimatix eventually would like to go public.


At its Santa Clara headquarters, a 33,000-square-foot facility with manufacturing and testing areas, Dimatix hopes to employ 100 people by the end of the year.


“We have a lot of expertise here in Silicon Valley, of people who really understand the technology,” Bibl said.