FEATURE: Five-axis robotic printing transforms wiring at Q5D Technologies

Tom Austin-Morgan

UK robotics company Q5D Technologies intends to transform the wiring process by printing electronics directly onto component surfaces
UK robotics company Q5D Technologies intends to transform the wiring process by printing electronics directly onto component surfaces

Current manufacturing processes require the wiring in many products – from hairdryers to fighter planes – to be installed by hand.

UK-based robotics company Q5D Technologies intends to transform the wiring process. It aims to eliminate human error, improve safety, increase production speed and accuracy, maximise connectivity, lower weight and material costs, and reduce the number of product recalls.

Stephen Bennington, CEO of Q5D Technologies, says: “Our solution lays down the wire or prints the printed electronics directly onto the surface of a component, which could be a vacuum-moulded, sheet-metal or injection-moulded part, and then over moulding if it must be sealed in.

“We use computer-aided manufacture software, which was originally designed for five-axis subtractive manufacture, to control those processes. It’s a fair bit of work, but all the core kernels of the software are already there, so it’s something that we can adapt and work into this new unit for our needs.”

Q5D was spun out of two UK technology companies – CEL-UK, which makes 3D printers, and M-SOLV, a laser micromachining company. (CEL-UK’s managing director, Chris Elsworthy, is now chief technology officer of Q5D, and M-SOLV’s CEO is Q5D’s chief business development officer.)

The companies were brought together at meetings of the Bessemer Society, an organisation made up of the founders and CEOs of UK engineering and manufacturing businesses, which Bennington was involved in setting up. 

CEL-UK’s five-axis platform incorporated a 3D printer and silver-based printed electronics, but its silver paste required an oven to be cured. M-SOLV had developed a technology that could cure and sinter much less expensive copper inks using a laser, requiring no separate ovens. 

Bennington explains: “I thought, ‘They’re doing it on a flat sheet – can we adapt and miniaturise it to put it on a five-axis machine? I think those two companies ought to come together.’ And so they did, and we span out the new business.”

Q5D was registered in 2018, but its first offer of investment came in late 2019. Then Covid happened and the company went ‘stealth’ until the beginning of 2021 when it received funding from SOSV, a Silicon Valley venture capital company, taking part in its HAX manufacturing accelerator programme for pre-seed start-ups. Since then, Q5D has completed a second, $2.7m seed-funding round led by Chrysalix Venture Capital with additional support from SOSV and the Rainbow Seed Fund.

Robotic tool

Q5D is focused on applications in aerospace – from small space companies such as Oxford Space Systems to multinational manufacturers such as Safran – as well as automotive and consumer electrical businesses. But it says that its technology can be used in almost any sector that is interested in advanced manufacturing. 

Bennington points out, though, that Q5D’s five-axis robotic tool unit – the CY1000 – won’t be sitting on a work bench or desktop as it has a footprint of 1.67 X 1.34m, is 2.06m high and weighs 900kg. It will operate in an assembly line where the part will be moved into it from an injection-moulding machine. The wiring will then be added before the part is moved onto the next step of the manufacturing process. However, he adds that the CY1000 will be cheaper than a CNC cutting machine, which can cost between £300,000 and £500,000.

“It’ll be a monthly lease cost,” explains Bennington. “Like your mobile phone contract, at the end of your 36 months you want the latest model with all the refinements – we want to be able to give that flexibility.”

He says this reduces the risk for companies adopting a new technology. Plus, from an investor’s perspective, it gives Q5D a monthly recurring income which will grow as new customers are added. On top of that, the company will sell services: helping to train staff, help with qualified materials for the machine, and servicing and calibrating the machine. And a range of software licences will offer increasing sophistication.

Kill the costs

Other key areas of focus for Q5D are accuracy and speed. “Whereas a CNC cutting machine needs to be accurate to a few microns, we can get away with accuracies of 20 or maybe 50 microns for most applications,” says Bennington. “Suddenly the cost drops and you can do things in a completely different way to keep those costs down. If we can keep the takt time low, the speed of the machine fast, and the bill of materials down, we can kill the costs of manufacturing these things.”

Automotive Tier Ones and OEMs put aside around 1% of their revenues for recalls, and almost all recalls are for faults on the electrical subsystem. Most of these failures are from manual wire harness-making processes, or owing to the insulation becoming damaged, causing trip-outs or even fires.

“We want to just eliminate all of these,” says Bennington. “Making wire manufacturing and the systems more reliable, building quality systems into the manufacturing process so production can be monitored and measured, is going to be a really important part of our process. Everything should be identical every time.”

Q5D’s technology uses multiple printing techniques including miniaturised laser and ink deposition systems

Q5D’s technology uses multiple printing techniques including miniaturised laser and ink deposition systems

To protect against arc-over events, Q5D’s technology can embed each wire into its own track so they never touch and can be over-moulded and sealed so they are never exposed to the elements or chemical or physical attack.

Bennington adds: “Over-strain on the wire termination is another common cause of wiring failure. As gaps open up, corrosion occurs, and as the oxide builds up so does resistivity, which means the termination starts to get hot. Because our wiring is fixed within the structure of the object, you can do finite element analysis to design-out such errors.”

Q5D’s technology also allows end-users to embed electric cable and wire directly into materials or tune the properties of wires. Functionality can be added more easily and cheaply than is possible by hand. 

Accuracy is vital

One of the biggest challenges, according to Bennington, has been understanding and getting to the right levels of accuracy and tolerance on the CY1000. 

He says: “When you’re on a flat surface, laser sintering is relatively easy. You can use certain printing techniques – like syringe pumps – to get a nice, even, flat layer of conductive ink and then track the laser over it afterwards.

“Doing that in free space on an object that you’re not entirely sure of, if it’s vacuum moulded for example, so the tolerances might not be as you expected, is more difficult. We’re having to use different printing techniques. It’s an interesting mixture of automated calibration, all the clever firmware and design of the system itself, and then this miniaturisation of all the laser systems and the ink deposition systems that we’re using.”

Q5D is working with Siemens NX and Ai Build to better optimise the CAM part of the process. Over time the artificial intelligence begins to understand how and why the process is being undertaken and which modules are used for each step, creating an optimised tool chain.

Solving problems

One early prospective adopter of Q5D’s technology is Safran which makes, among other things, business-class seats for passenger jets. These are largely made from vac-formed components inside which are contained wiring, lighting and sensors as well as stiffening features that Bennington says can be combined with Q5D’s processes.

“It’s like a coachbuilding problem at the moment for them,” says Bennington. “Everything’s done by hand. The reason for that is, although they might sell 10,000 seats, which might be to six or seven different customers, each of whom wants something slightly different, so every shape is slightly different. Plus, the aircraft gets narrower to the front, so each seat is slightly different. 

“This lends itself to the additive approach we have. You can have a CAD file for each of the different seats and we can adapt it for their individual requirements. The regulatory environment in aircraft cabins is nowhere near as harsh as the regulatory environment outside the cabin. I think our technology can go through the DO-160, which is the regulatory hurdle to get it licensed for use in aircraft interiors.”

Another benefit is that, rather than the wiring being held in place by screws, bosses and tie wraps, Q5D can print wire traps onto the panel itself. This can give a lightweighting advantage of 5-10kg per seat, allowing Safran to add more functionality and differentiation for its customers.

In the automotive industry there are (unnamed) customers that want to fully automate the wiring process on their existing production lines. As well as the lightweighting benefits, the precise nature of the automated process instead of manually passing wires through bulkheads – potentially causing damage – means the correct gauge of wire can be used, and they don’t have to be over-specified.

Viable prototype

The company is in the process of ironing out technical problems to get to the next minimal viable prototype which, says Bennington, will be ready for the next investment round in 18 months. 

“We’ve got some reference customers that we have already asked to beta test the machine,” says Bennington. “We’re also rapidly expanding the management, R&D and product development teams and conducting strategic marketing to work out its value, who the customer’s going to be and what they actually need. Feed that back into the design and then work out what the value actually is, what can we charge customers for this? But, more than anything, we need to get all the processes working together.”

Get to grips with the future factory at Advanced Manufacturing (18-22 July), part of the Engineering Futures webinar series. Register for FREE today

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


Read more related articles

Professional Engineering magazine

Professional Engineering app

  • Industry features and content
  • Engineering and Institution news
  • News and features exclusive to app users

Download our Professional Engineering app

Professional Engineering newsletter

A weekly round-up of the most popular and topical stories featured on our website, so you won't miss anything

Subscribe to Professional Engineering newsletter

Opt into your industry sector newsletter

Related articles