If you are like 98% of the PCB designers out there, you know what it can be like to run through the gauntlet of outsourcing a design to a third-party manufacturer to receive a prototype or two. The process is usually a little painful, often pricier than you’d have hoped, and leaves you waiting for longer than you’d expect.
I often think that the manufacturing process is similar to going out to dinner at an overrated restaurant; you’ll wait on an unenthusiastic staff to bring you an overcooked steak that took far too long to get to you, was substantially overpriced, and ultimately leaves you with the reoccurring thought “Why didn’t I just make this at home?”
The Additive Manufacturing Revolution
Fortunately, the power we have to cook our own delicious steaks at home is now being complemented by an ability to create our own (delicious) PCBs at home! Enter in-house additive manufacturing. No longer will we be waiting on an overseas supplier that ultimately produces a mediocre prototype. It’s time to empower ourselves and bring manufacturing in-house.
As with most other industries surrounding additive manufacturing, the PCB industry is just beginning to feel the positive effects that these machines can have on our manufacturing process. New materials and capabilities of these machines are being introduced daily, opening up vast areas that have otherwise been untouched for years (i.e. etching, stackup manufacturing, panelization, HDI’s, multilayered boards, etc.).
Below, we’ve compiled a list of the top benefits your manufacturing team or processes will experience when bringing in-house additive manufacturing to your business.
1. Reduced Turnaround Time
This is obvious but reduced turnaround time is certainly one of the top benefits of in-house additive manufacturing. Oftentimes, you’ll be required to put things on hold for about a week or so with each outsourced prototype you order. This excludes expedited orders, of course, which cost an arm and a leg in itself.
With an in-house 3d printing machine, you’ll enjoy a time reduction of around 80-90% for each prototype pumped out. This is due to the fact that each 3D PCB takes no more than 24 hours to compile.
Looking past time savings, companies that outsource manufacturing efforts are much more hesitant to pull the trigger with each iteration. This, in turn, significantly shunts development speed as design engineers can’t operate (i.e. develop) as quickly as they could with in-house machines. At this rate, engineers can make quicker decisions with greater confidence and greater agility in the event of a rework.
Imagine the time difference of iterating four designs between an in-house machine and an outsourced build!
With the time savings you’ll receive, you’ll be able to dedicate more resources to other aspects of your design, such as design verification.
2. Increases Productivity
Obviously, you’ll have a large cache of time savings with each iteration you run through, so what are you and/or your employees to do with the extra time? Whatever you need to get done! Simply put, your productivity will increase nearly five-fold when you begin to bring the process in-house.
Got some additional power issues you need addressed but didn’t think you had time for? Done. Need to shift more effort towards quality assurance? Check. Need to take a much needed R&R? Hawaii is waiting (for productivity purposes, of course).
3. Saves on Costs
Another apparent but fantastic benefit is the fact that you can say goodbye to budget-intensive steps like paying prototype shipping costs, assessing vendor profit margins, accounting for delays, avoiding hassles, navigating through language barriers, and so on. All the downfalls of outsourcing your designs will suddenly vanish, and you’ll be left with another large pool of cash savings that you will certainly be able to shift to another much-needed facet of your company.
The best part of this benefit is that the more you manufacture, the more you save. Be sure to factor this into your decision when considering the topic, you may find yourself making a handsome return on your 3D printing investment after a short time.
4. Reduces Errors and Costs Associated
When producing anything in your 3D printing machine, you will never need to rely on molds again (certainly for prototyping purposes). Assuming you are running a fit check on some housing for your PCB, you might have had to rely on your manufacturer to tool out a mold for you just so you can test the fit. Imagining a tooling error mid-design sends shivers down my spine just thinking about the buckets of cash flowing out of my pockets.
When you bring your machines in-house, you won’t need to worry about any more costly errors in molds and tooling. Another dollar saved!
With the time savings you experience, you’ll be able to run through a plethora of design variants when you bring 3D printing in-house.
5. Innovate Further in Any Design
Circling back to time savings, the fact that designs can be quickly produced and iterated makes it extremely trivial to run through a slew of variant tests. With that added savings of, say, six days, imagine how many variants you could go through to verify, reiterate, and validate.
In the end, you’ll be able to produce a far superior product with (validated) features you only dreamed of having, simply due to the savings these 3D printing machines can provide.
6. Increased Security for your Electronics
One topic that is often overlooked, is that of security. When you toss your super top secret design across the pond (any pond, really), you are trusting that the supplier in question will hold 100% to your NDA, or any other confidentiality contracts. Are you comfortable in trusting a company that you’ve never met face to face? I would be hesitant to send my stuff over too.
Bring your machines in-house, and the only security risk you run is locking the front door each night. Not a bad tradeoff.
7. Design for Future Standards and Uses
New materials and capabilities are already on par with, and in some cases surpassing, most of the original manufacturing processes out there. The ability to create any design under the sun suddenly makes the world your oyster, and you’ll be able to adapt to future requirements quicker than any other outsourced manufacturing house out there. Additive manufacturing is the place folks have been trying to reach for many years, and it will not be going away any time soon.
The truly exciting part of the emerging 3D PCB printing revolution comes in the form of the software being used to design the board for print. Companies like Altium are already looking to position themselves at the forefront of this new technology. Imagine the day when you’re able to whip up a quick PCB design, and as easy as it is to print a Word document, simply press ‘Ctrl’ + ‘P’ to pop out your PCB. Utilizing Altium Designer already gives huge advantages over competitors and will continue to do so when the days of ‘Ctrl’ +’P’ finally arrive.
The manufacturing limitations involved in ‘printing’ a ‘printed’ circuit board is mildly shocking, especially considering all the hassles, costs, and time of outsourcing a PCB design. With the growth of the 3D printing market within the PCB industry, bringing your manufacturing efforts in-house is worth its weight in gold (and offers more versatile printing abilities that bring greater truth to the term ‘printed circuit board’).
Knowing the benefits of cost and time savings, decreased risk, increased productivity, and innovative possibilities, it’s a wonder why additive manufacturing isn’t more prevalent. At the design stage, using great software such as Altium Designer will put you at the forefront of this revolution, keeping you agile for years to come.
If you would like to learn more about how Altium is pushing the 3D printing envelope, talk to an Altium expert today.
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