After moving to a new city, I couldn’t resist visiting the local library to pick up my library card and explore educational resources. As I walked in, the librarian cheerfully handed me a pamphlet on using a 3D printer. I was thrilled to see how easy it is becoming to access a 3D printer. Once restricted to research universities and high-budget labs, 3D printing is now ubiquitous. 3D printed electronics are also starting to become more reliable and accessible.
With any new technology, especially technology involved in production processes, it is only a matter of time before people find ways to adapt it to their needs as the technology filters down into their industries. Traditional manufacturing can be timely and costly, sometimes you don’t need an elaborate printing process for your printed circuit boards. Of course, this is where 3D printing electronics comes in.
With in-house additive manufacturing using 3D printers, you can do low-volume manufacturing and rapid prototyping production runs from your office space. While the front-loaded costs might be a bit more expensive than requesting a batch of 10 boards from your tried-and-true manufacturer, the printing process will become more and more efficient the more you use it. With printing technology, rapid prototyping can become as easy as you’ve dreamed.
Conductive Ink and Additive Manufacturing: Early 3D Printers
To understand the significance of these advancements, it’s important to note that the original 3D printed electronics were quite basic. Although a few printers were capable of extruding conductive filaments during printing, most had to 3D print around conductors consisting of actual wires to create an electric path within a printed object. Like most early 3D printers, these systems had very low spatial resolution, which resulted in large feature sizes and high tolerances. Furthermore, not many materials were compatible with the printers, which limited print properties and parameters and resulted in low conductivity and poor performance.
The next generation of conductive printer systems focused on printing traces onto a PCB. Deposition and etching, with the corresponding toxic chemicals, could now be reduced. The process was much more customizable, making it easier to produce single print boards. Eventually, these systems advanced to be able to print on both sides of a PCB substrate.
The latest edition of 3D printed electronics most closely resembles what we consider “true” 3D printing. It involves printing conductive traces onto and into the layers of substrate material and includes interconnections throughout the board, working like vias. While this iteration of printed electronics certainly has room for improvement, it easily beats its predecessors in terms of capabilities and versatility.
Conductive 3D prints require multiple materials to be printed within a single object to provide both a substrate and conductors.
Utilizing 3D Printed Electronics in Your Manufacturing Process
Without the proper manufacturing process in place, printing your printed circuit board can make you understand exactly where the hard in hardware comes from. Traditional manufacturing processes can require weeks or even months of investment in building rapport and a relationship with a manufacturer, auditing and testing the facility to make sure it has your foreseeable printing needs and developing stronger communication lines.
3D printed electronics, yet, won’t replace full-scale and large batch manufacturing processes. But what it can do, especially with in-house additive manufacturing, is allow access to rapid prototyping and get you circuit boards that are made in a fraction of the time as a normal prototyping request would take.
With conductive inks and other materials constantly being improved, 3D printing technology is looking to adapt for whatever circuit board needs are not currently being met from the traditional prototyping process. How long do you normally have to sit on your hands when you’re waiting to continue on a design with the first batch of prototype boards? Now, imagine having access to them after simply printing them from a few doors down. Here’s a better look at some differences:
One of the primary factors keeping 3D printing from producing competitive products in many applications is the fact that many inks and printer materials are less conductive than etched copper traces. However, the variety of print-compatible materials for both substrates and conductors is constantly expanding, and material performance is improving dramatically.
Printer resolution is a major discriminator between different manufacturing systems. 3D prints require control along all three axes so the feature sizes that can be produced vertically may not resemble those in lateral dimensions. Lateral resolution in the ‘tens of microns’ is possible, depending on how much you’re willing to spend. Vertical resolution is often less fine than the lateral resolution, as it depends only on the vertical stepper in the stage; the printheads and stage can both be adjusted to produce finer lateral features. However, as resolution improves, speed usually decreases. Many smaller steps take longer and the slow print speeds can limit production.
3D printing has become increasingly accessible and printed electronics will soon be equally common.
In-house 3D Printing for Electronics and Rapid Prototyping
While every designer may not have access to a 3D electronics printer, there are some compelling business arguments for them. The ability to produce single prototype boards can justify the significant upfront expense since the cost of masks and production testing becomes minimal. Rapid design respins suddenly become possible and refinements can be immediately integrated. Designers also receive the option to keep designs completely in-house, which is an extremely valuable asset.
Few companies can afford to maintain an entire PCB production line, but 3D printers are much smaller and far less expensive. Never outsourcing design and production offers significant IP protections in many markets, especially those particularly prone to counterfeiting.
Design files for 3D printing can already be produced by many CAD programs like Altium Designer. As printed electronics become more widespread, the PCB housing design integration process will expand to include increasingly exotic form factors for electronics. But further than that, for software that makes managing manufacturing output files easy, consider Altium’s Active BOM as an easy way to get the supplier information you need.
To learn more about the progression of 3D printed electronics or how you can use PCB design tools for your prototyping, testing, and manufacturing needs, talk to an expert at Altium.
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