3D Printing Opens New Doors for Electronics Prototyping & Manufacturing

The day of the factory-in-a-box in which “systems manufacture systems” is no longer just hype. We’re headed for a time when electronic devices – which are themselves 3D objects – will be fabricated in one build by 3D printers. Imagine printing out fully functioning earphones or a TV remote with no additional machine or hand-assembly needed. The potential for using additive manufacturing in electronics manufacture is seemingly limitless.

Today, the 3D-printed electronics space is in its infancy. That’s not from a lack of interest or need but rather because developing 3D printers for electronics is painstakingly complex: standard inks and traditional 3D printers simply can't handle the task. Rather, what’s needed are specialty inkjet printers that can deposit conductive nanoparticle metallic inks onto substrates (which they also might print), while being guided by Gerber files that have been converted into 3D versions for printing.

Though the challenges are daunting, 3D printed electronics are gaining much notice because there are real-life applications that demonstrate their many advantages. It’s also because companies are already building these highly-specialized printers that can print multilayer circuits.

Multilayer PCB printed on a 3D printer

Multilayer PCB printed on a 3D printer

In their earliest applications, 3D printers for printed electronics will make a significant difference in accelerating product development. Electronics designers and engineers often cite a chief concern for them is the time required for design and testing of multilayer printed circuit board (PCB) prototypes for an electronics product. With highly complex designs, the cost for traditional manufacturing set up increases dramatically, and increases time and cost. With 3D printing, manufacturing a complex multilayer PCB can be far easier than traditional subtractive manufacturing because it can eliminate several steps. For example, normal PCB manufacturing technology requires blind and open vias to be drilled and plated, they are simply printed using a seamless 3D printing process. 

Using Nano Dimension’s DragonFly 2020 3D Printer, for example, manufacturers can control their own in-house rapid prototyping in less time, at a lower cost and without intellectual property leaving the building. That means taking designs from concept to fully functioning PCB or antenna prototype in hours rather than weeks. If the design is flawed, it can be optimized and corrected and re-printed the same day or overnight, eliminating costly waiting and providing significant value in the product development process. The traditional approach is to design the PCB, get internal purchasing approvals and send the design files to a third-party manufacturer. Standard turnaround times are usually as much as two weeks and there are usually minimum order quantity requirements that drive up costs.

Rapid prototyping of PCBs with the DragonFly 2020 3D Printer

Rapid prototyping of PCBs with the DragonFly 2020 3D Printer

3D printing also means proprietary content is kept in-house rather than becoming a potential IP security risk in an off-site (often off-shore) prototyping facility. 3D printing for printed electronics offers a slew of additional benefits as well. Beyond rapid innovation and the freedom of experimentation, 3D printing also offers the potential for new and complex geometries that aren’t possible with traditional electronics manufacturing, which throws the doors wide open to innovation for designers. 3D printing also offers much greater flexibility and customization, the potential for fast time-to-market and environmental sustainability as there’s no waste. 

For widespread adoption, highly focused 3D printers will evolve to give even faster speeds, larger sizes and wider material offerings. Broadening the materials portfolio and including additional types of functional inks will increase the applications for printing electrical components such as resistors, capacitors and transistors.

The future for 3D printed electronics is very bright, and this combination of advanced technologies is paving the way for greater innovations to come.

Note: Mr. Fried will be speaking on this topic at the upcoming IDTechEx show in Berlin on May 10 at 5:20 PM local time. At Nano Dimension’s main booth, G11, visitors can get an up-close look at the DragonFly 2020 3D Printer for the production of professional multilayer PCBs and 3D circuitry.

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