3D Printing Circuit Boards for Fast Prototyping

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: March 22, 2022
3D Printing Circuit Boards for Fast Prototyping

Let’s talk about the future of printed circuit board prototyping. Sean Patterson, the President of Nano Dimension USA is here to introduce the technology behind DragonFly IV®, the multi-material 3D printer for electronics fabrication. He will walk us through its current capabilities, what it can do and what we may expect from it in the future.

Sit back, relax and enjoy this episode. Make sure to watch through the end and check the show notes with the additional resources below.

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Show Highlights:

  • Sean talks about the growing company.
    • They have 39 members in the US, and 500 globally. There are still plenty of roles available, visit Nano Dimension’s website here
    • Started as an additive manufacturing company, specifically for circuit boards to now multi-material, and multi-layer 3D printing option for electronics
  • Sean excitedly shares all the exciting things that the DragonFly IV can do.
    • Faster electronic prototyping and proof of concept
    • Environmental and sustainability advantages
    • A manufacturing plant in the office
    • An electromechanical structure that's functionally, mechanically, and electrically, to solve a problem
  • The evolution of electronic manufacturing offers a solution that works–there are many better ways, weight reduction, and size reduction
    • Nano Dimensions is helping the electronics industry ecosystems systems get prepped now, to support the adoption of this technology
  • DragonFly IV uses FR4-like, and the conductive ink is a silver nanoparticle
  • What’s the future look like for Nano Dimensions?
    • What materials will be available in the future?
    • What will be the ultimate capability of the DragonFly?

Links and Resources:

Connect with Sean Patterson on LinkedIn 
Visit Nando Dimension’s website here 

Connect with Zack on LinkedIn

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Sean Patterson:
I don't know if you could see it, but it goes down two levels, right? So you got the fingers coming out there.
Manufacturing those fingers in the middle, on the next layers down, because this is already 3D in structures, doesn't yield that well all the time. Now, they can yield at the final yield. But it's because they go back, and people sit there with microscopes and hand touch up all the fingers, every single one of them.

Zack Peterson:
Hello, everybody, and welcome to the OnTrack Podcast. I am Zack Peterson.
I am your host, and today, I am talking with Sean Patterson, from Nano Dimension. He is chief revenue officer and president of Americas.
Today, we are going to be talking to him in his new office in Massachusetts. Sean, thank you so much for joining us, and I see you have a very open office concept.

Sean Patterson:
We're bringing a new concept to the world, the ultra open office concept. We just ...

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, when I was talking to someone from Nano, and they said you guys had a new office, you normally don't expect it to be totally open like that, but wow. It really is new.

Sean Patterson:
We're a startup, and trying to move with speed, so we got the keys last week. If I sit here for another two hours, one of our first machines is arriving. It's going to go right where I'm sitting.

Zack Peterson:
Oh, wow.

Sean Patterson:
Yeah, so we just got about 25,000 square feet in Waltham, Boston. Sorry, Waltham, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.

Zack Peterson:
That's excellent, you guys are moving up in the world.

Sean Patterson:
Yeah, yeah. So we just got the keys, and now it's about filling it up. But we're trying to move with speed, right? It's not like some big ribbon cutting, where we'll make a beautiful office, and then cut the ribbon, and we open it up. It's about going, and keeping it up, so ...

Zack Peterson:
Sounds like the company's been growing quite a bit recently, then, if you guys have to move into a new facility?

Sean Patterson:
For sure. I think, the United States, I started in July last year, about five people. We're about 39 now here, and still continuing to grow.
It's more of a limitation of how fast we can hire, and find the right skill sets. Anybody listening, please check nano-di.com, we have plenty of roles posted for those interested, especially on the application engineering side, for digital application engineers.
Yeah, so we're here, and ready to keep going. Globally, we went from about 60 in January of last year, we're over 500 now.

Zack Peterson:
Wow.

Sean Patterson:
About 300 of those are in Israel.

Zack Peterson:
That's excellent.

Sean Patterson:
That's both organic and NMA, as well.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, that's excellent. Well, for those in the audience who are not familiar with Nano Dimension, Nano Dimension is a additive manufacturing company, specifically for circuit boards.

When I was originally introduced to Nano Dimension, back when I think one of the original founders was still running the company, it was a big shift in mindset for me to think about 3D printing being applied to the entire circuit board.

Because these days, we talk a bit about additive processes, and it's more for fabrication end, on the traces, getting copper conductors down, all the way to very small feature sizes. But you guys are literally printing everything.

Sean Patterson:
We are. We're the only multi-material, and I'll say it, by definition, therefore, multi-layer 3D printing option for electronics out there.
The industry is, I think, improperly using printed electronics, because that's usually attached to metalization on the outside of things. We have competitors, for a lack of better word, that do those kind of things. That's not really where our focus is. Our focus is to make circuit boards out of thin air. It's a completely functional one.

As I often like to tell people, certainly, my sales team, is while the easy elevator pitch is, we make a 3D printing circuit board machine, it actually shoots you in the foot, because it's more than that. So yeah, can we print a 10-layer curver file? Yes.

But that's not the point. The point is that it's electromechanical structures, right? So here's a drone, printed from nothing. Sure, the arms are dielectrics, and we'll work on more material strengths, and the motor staters are up there. That's what you see, those coils on the edge there.

We have a larger version of this, runs at 2,300 RPM, but even at that, you look on the edge, and there's topography to the center of that, right there? It sticks up a little.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah.

Sean Patterson:
Okay. That's why it's just more about structures, and we have to advance our minds. It's not an any layer board, it's a any structure board.
That's why I say it's a bad elevator pitch, because it ties people mentally back to a 2D, 2.5D, if you consider vias mindset, which is where the world's at. That's why it's a bad pitch, but it makes a mental protection of, okay, they're printing electronics, but it's structures, really.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah. And I think, when a lot of people who may not have been involved with 3D printing or more advanced 3D printing processes, hear the term "3D printing," they're probably still thinking, a fuse deposition, where you basically have the filament, and then it's going through the aperture. And then it's, the head's moving around, and printing like that.

I think it's a bit of a mental leap to try and imagine, well, how do I apply that to a circuit board? Are you now just doing the same thing, but with conductors and dial electrics.

Sean Patterson:
Yeah. I like to compare the, I'm going to, the legacy 3D printing, which is metals and plastics. And that was a evolution of manufacturing, okay? People, humans, think in the 3D mechanical space. All of us, whether you're a mechanical engineer or not, everyone does. Five-year-old playing with Legos, right? Manipulation, I understand this stuff.

Now, sure, yes. Some of us go to mechi, and study in college, and get statics dynamics, et cetera. Then you go to a company, and now, your designs aren't related by creativity. In many ways, artists' sculptures are make mechanical engineering. It's these 3D structures.

However, what 3D printing brought was ... I used the classical example of, if I design, as an engineer, a hollow sphere, 30 years ago, the manufacturer will say, "We can do it for you. It's going to be two halves, and we're going to weld it together, and here's your hollow sphere."

3D printing comes along mechanically. And it now says, "Okay, I can actually do it a one shot now." Yes, it does change some DFM, and people can get more creative, but it doesn't necessarily change the ideas of those mechanical engineers.

With electronics, it's totally different. For those that are, I'll say crazy enough to be a double E in college, maybe they don't ask for much hurt as a chemi, but still, you don't really think about electronics in a meaningful way, or understand electronics in a meaningful way, until you're in college.

I'm sure there's some wonderful high schools that can get people there, but it's a totally different spectrum. And electronics is, it's the conductive and the dielectrics, right? So when you show up for day one of your double E classes, you get a 2D piece of software that's handed to you. ECAD is 2D.

So people don't naturally think in the 3D spectrum, because they're never, ever taught to even think that way. I mean, there's certainly some RF designers and things like that, HFS, and things like that.

At the end of the day, you actually clap it down to get into a PCB production, and you flatten out your 3D design, but most electrical engineers are operating in an ECAD software. People just never naturally think that way, one.

Then you go to industry, and you're still using the same piece of ECAD. Where many years ago, most companies, most OEMs, used to manufacture circuit boards in-house. Some of them still have PCBA, but most of them have generally gone out to contract manufacturing.

Now you have contract manufacturers that are now sort of removed from a direct OEM influence, because you're trying to support all these OEMs. If there's no in for 3D structures, they're only going to have the interpretation of ECAD, and they're only have equipment that supports 2D structures.

So there's this vicious cycle that doesn't allow us to think of a 3D spectrum, let alone, it's much harder to think about electromagnetic spectrums in a 3D sense. Then, out on top of that, the standards that have really developed for electronics, which are one of the oldest consortiums ever founded by engineers, for standards that have evolved for right reasons, for reliability and all these things. And now you have an entire industry that's sort of hard to change.

When we think about 3D mechanical printing, it was this evolution of manufacturing. It doesn't change the world, sorry, doesn't change the designers, and all those kind of things.

Electronics is a revolution of the entire system. And it starts with education at the universities, which is fundamentally why we have this wonderful new open office concept in the heart of Boston, because we that's the densest population of schools that you can find mostly in the world. So we need to go back to there, no different than Apple did, when the original Apple, 2Gs or whatever came out, and we gave it to all the elementary schools, and things like that.

That's that this fundamental difference, I think, between the two, and much tougher. So, coming back to your total question here is, we're putting two materials down and it's different than even mechanical printers that put your materials down. We're putting them down, because one's the dielectric, and one's a vector, and they have a role, a functional role to play.

But also, when you're putting them down layer by layer, and I'm not talking about PCB layers, I'm talking about granular levels of layers of a 3D printing, as you're curing, as you're centering the CTEs, and the properties have to play nice, as they're, that's happening on each layer.

The whole structure then has to operate onto these standards, and that the world is expecting. It's a more difficult problem to solve, and you can't just throw any material set out there.

Much would you see that's ubiquitous in the 3D printing market is a very open landscape of companies out there, because all you really need to do is make a deposition method through an FDM, and then you can use any plastic you want that goes through that same mechanism.

It's different for us. While we work with customers that want to try new materials, they can't just go and throw that material in our machine, and hope that it just comes out, because it's about the interaction, and while you're building it, and then, total thing at the end.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, I was going to ask about the materials, but you actually brought up something really interesting about the drivers of advancements in manufacturing, and then taking that back into CAD. We were talking to another manufacturer here just recently, from Sierra Circuits, and he said the same thing, that customers aren't demanding enough of their fabricators, to then push the fabricators to demand more from the manufacturers of the equipment. So we shouldn't be surprised is that we get stuck in this kind of 2D planter landscape for manufacturing PCBs.

Sean Patterson:
Yeah, the semiconductor industry has a much easier time with this. It's a much tighter controlled supply chain, but also, semiconductors are generally making a product, right?

Now, multiple product lines. I get it. But how many different, pick your processor du jour, that processor goes on, how many different circuit boards? Circuit boards are contract manufacturing for every single design.

You can even buy the same motherboard, and you don't even know the rev spinning behind the scenes, and the process is the same, but the designs are changing at this PCB itself. So there isn't the education, there hasn't been the software. We have a software system that we are in alpha and beta phases with right now, that really train insulates ECAD into MCAD.

Now you can design in both areas, but we're working on bleeding the two together, and really driving the engineering together between electrical engineers and mechanical engineers, and so, electromechanical engineers, to think about different ways to solve things, again, of the drone, right? Okay, so now you have an electromechanical structure that's functionally, mechanically and electrically, to solve a problem.

Anyways, the circuit board industry just doesn't have that demand. Look, circuit board plants are not putting $20 billion fabs into Ohio, okay? Because most, especially in the US, really went through mom and pop shops.

Then there was this kind of buildup, and then offshoring then happened in the '90s and 2000s. I mean, you go back in 2000, there's 3000 circuit board shops. Now there's less than 300, and they went by the wayside. So they wouldn't have the capital to really try new things.

I worked for TTM technologies before, two jobs ago, running most of their North American operations. They were one of that few that we could actually get to, even considering futuristic R&D that's at the manufacturing level.

There's very few OEMs that can drive fundamental changes, that require hundreds of million dollars in capital, recapitalization, Apple being one of them, and pushing MSAP, right? MSAPs are really here now because of that.

Zack Peterson:
Right.

Zack Peterson:
It was experiments, but now you actually have a demand, but it came from that OEM, and it causes all those plants, their suppliers, to recapitalize hundreds of million dollars to do that. So you have to have the OEMs doing that, and there's very few places where that happens.
That, by the way, is high volume, low mix. Most of the stuff in the UD is the other way, right?

Zack Peterson:
Right, right.

Sean Patterson:
It's high mix, low volume.

Zack Peterson:
Well, and then, when Apple is demanding, something like that, people have a real incentive to invest, because they know, "Oh, it's Apple, they're going to be putting this into a hundred million units a year," right? More than that a year.

Sean Patterson:
Yeah, right.

Zack Peterson:
Of course, it's going to be low risk. It's worth the investment, I think. Going to shift in the planer process, and trying to innovate there, is suddenly very high risk, for a number of reasons.

But you brought up the fact that, at least the American cohort of manufacturers, the number has gone down. And I think a lot of them are still small shops, so where are they going to get the money?

Sean Patterson:
Yeah. Don't quote me on this, but I think there's only three companies, over $100 million of bare board. So you've got [SME 00:14:59], and Summit, and it's TTM, I think.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah.

Sean Patterson:
And Amphenol's just below that.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah. That was Summit. Summit, [crosstalk 00:15:07].

Sean Patterson:
But if you really look at it, it's quick, right? Summit's really come via acquisition very quickly in the last few years. Ir's not really like you're building it, but that's the way TTM evolved, as well.

Nobody's really, except for Whelen and GreenSource put, and there's a few other projects out there to actually build green field plants. But we have to figure out how to really engineer those facilities to not take all the manual labor. But when you're in this high mix, low volume world, there is a lot of touch labor.

I mean, when I was at GM in Stafford, in Connecticut for TTM, that's the largest A&D plant in the US. Again, don't quote me on the total numbers, but something like 20% of the operators were hand touch operators.

Because when you start trying to do, let me see, like structures, even just flip chips, in a high mix, low volume world, I don't know if you can see it, but it goes down two levels, so you've got the fingers coming out there. Manufacturing those fingers in the middle, on that next layer down, because this is already 3D in structures, doesn't yield that well all the time.

Now they can yield it, at the final yield. but it's because they go back, and people sit there with microscopes, and hand touch up all of the fingers, every single one of them.

Zack Peterson:
[crosstalk 00:16:21] They're going through with it, with a focused eye. They're going through with a focused eye, on a beam, to do that.

Sean Patterson:
No, usually with knives, I think it was that way. But the industry's also kind of created this in some way, because the PCBs people get in an argument with me about this all the time. But it's contract manufacturing. It's treated, price wise, as a commodity. And we can argue about whether it's a commodity, because you'd go to anybody to get it, but look at the yields behind the scenes, and see what's really happening.

I say it's not a commodity, because every single one is different, and the yields are different. And it's not just this thing you can buy off the shelf, but it gets priced that way.

To get those huge recapitalizations, it costs a lot of money. I mean, you see these iterations of PCB plants out there, there's solid numbers of revenue for PCB plants, from two, four, eight, you get to a 20, 40, 80, 120 million.

If you're in the middle there, on a revenue, you're not utilizing all the ... You're either overbooked, or you're not utilizing all of your equipment, and you can't stay in the middle there, because you have to wind up adding an entire, all these areas that are your herbies, if you've read about constraint theory.

But you have to be able to run these things in parallel, because they're throughput. Then you get more complex, especially, again, low mix, high volume, where you got via structures left and right.

One thing's going through is a straight through hole, maybe the next one's with a through hole to the back drill. But then you got other ones, with any layer, going round and round and round in the PCB shops, while other things are trying to go through. It's very, very difficult, and is a very complex manufacturing process, because of that.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, and ...

Sean Patterson:
It's just the complexity of everything. You only have to screw up one of 100,000 holes, while manufacturing the board for five months, to scrap it.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah. So I think I'm hearing where the entry point is for additive, because it's essentially consolidating all of those steps into one deposition/centering process, that occurs, essentially, in parallel, involving all the materials.

Sean Patterson:
Right.

Zack Peterson:
Then you just slowly build up the entire board from, like you said, essentially from nothing, and you eliminate all the back and forth, and going through the shop multiple times.

Sean Patterson:
Right.

Zack Peterson:
And you wind up with a finished product. I think, what people would question with that type of process is, what's the scalability?

Sean Patterson:
Yeah. One, we actually, we like to say, the complexity of boards is free for us.

Zack Peterson:
Yes.

Sean Patterson:
Doesn't matter.

Zack Peterson:
Sure, sure. That makes sense.

Sean Patterson:
Complexity is free.

Zack Peterson:
Your complexity is ...

Sean Patterson:
So, the scalability ...

Zack Peterson:
Complexity is limited by resolution.

Sean Patterson:
Yes, but so is traditional manufacturing, right?

Zack Peterson:
Okay.

Sean Patterson:
We're working on getting smaller right now. We have a 75 micron limit, and we changed that in the last half year, down from 110, and we'll continue to drive it down. But yeah, the complexity is free, but in terms of where we're going, so the today's product is a DragonFly IV, that is available for purchase today.

We have about 70 fielded units, and the ... I don't know how to answer this. Our product roadmap, because we didn't get into this, but we have this wonderful fortune of only in COVID, this has all happened. But our company raised $1.5 billion in the public markets last year.

So we actually have the R&D kind of money, the war chest to make this happen. And I would even argue, more than any other company in the world, even the big ones, aren't throwing this at this problem.

Now we have product roadmaps that are looking at the next machines and the next, this was branching in here, but we are focused at a PCB production machine that would be PCB. But again, the complexity's for free, and so if you have vias don't go anywhere, it's fine.

But it does conceptually think about layers, and then something that it's more focused on, just pure sexy 3D stuff, but effectively, they kind of operate the same. So we're working on, to make sure those throughputs are adequate, to what a high mix, low volume in that world is, and automotive is low volume these days, in terms of where the cutoff is. We're not going to be printing smartphones, okay?

I would love it, I think we can get a huge demand, but the throughputs, what we're thinking about, are reasonable for what these manufacturers need, not to mention, everything now that comes in, everything that comes along with that. So you're asking about speed for delivery, but then, we're also looking at how we make sure that the pricing is right, that again, the complexity is free.

The yields are much better. The environmental and sustainability of this process is night and day different. IP projection, because, and have the printer in your office, right?

I'm putting, putting six printers in this wonderful, Class A regular office, it's not a manufacturing plant behind me. I'm going to make circuit boards no different than what you order from your OEM, from your contract manufacturer.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, they talk about manufacturing being in the same office as your manufacturer, excuse me, taking that to a whole new level.

Sean Patterson:
Yeah. And you even see, when people are ordering, and you start to do, "Oh, here's your first run, and how are the yields?" Then maybe they're doing it with somebody local, a local shop, just to get it done, and get a quick return, it's fine. Then, when they have to go to production, they're going to a company like TTM.

Zack Peterson:
Sure.

Sean Patterson:
And now, wait, they got to start it all over again, because you really need to understand your registration, and the material movements, that you can wind up scrapping. And it is not a copy and paste between the plants, even plants within the same company. There's these sort of thumbprints that happen between the plating line chemistries, and the humidity and temperature of the entire, even where the plant's located.

All these things add into it. For us, if you print it in your office and you're just doing your prototyping there, and then you want to go to manufacturing in the future, it's the same machine.

Zack Peterson:
Sure.

Sean Patterson:
It can order. And so we think about distributed manufacturing in that place, where you could note, we're going back to what happened to printing, like actual desktop printing, Gutenberg doing the press, and the printing presses, and all these kind of things.

Eventually, what people are more familiar with, is this desktop publishing. And just go back a few, a couple decades ago, most of the people listening to this will remember, if you needed a lot printed, you weren't printing it on your office. You were going to Kinko's or a printing house.

Zack Peterson:
I still do that.

Sean Patterson:
Most of that really doesn't ... But you can have it on your desktop now. So you're doing it, and then you're printing it right there. We want to be in that place in the conceptual idea, where you have this distributed stuff, where you can print anywhere.

Then again, it allows for IP protection, distributing, manufacturing, better utilization of all the equipment out there. That's the place we're trying to really get to.

Zack Peterson:
Okay. Yeah. I mean, that's all really interesting, and I can definitely appreciate the effort that you guys are putting into, really trying to get this to be more than just prototyping.

Because I think a lot of the hurdle to much broader adoption of 3-D printing, as the standard process, not the exception process, is the scalability. How easy is it to parallelize? How easy is it to maintain the skill level of the operator required?

I mean, all of these things are a factor. I think you guys are kind of setting them up and knocking them down one at a time.

Sean Patterson:
Slowly.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah.

Sean Patterson:
Slowly. And those things still exist in traditional manufacturing, right? I mean, we really had a catalyst event, where we were able to generate all this, this capital to make this happen.

I mean, the company's been around since 2012, and we put $50 million in R&D in those 10 years. Now we can do that almost a quarter, if you will.

Zack Peterson:
Right.

Sean Patterson:
So we're really accelerating that, but now it's going, we're really doing it from an M&A process, because you can sort of buy and integrate solutions that work, so you can shorten the timeline for development. And it's not that we're giving up on all internal R&D. We have 130 scientists right now.

By the way, that's double how many people, employees we had totally last year, so we're really getting that flywheel going. A lot of it does come down to, especially the next materials, as material science. That is the key, as with most 3D printing.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, absolutely.

Sean Patterson:
Yeah, so ...

Zack Peterson:
So ...

Sean Patterson:
Yeah, I mean, and it's all about prepping the ecosystem for that too, right? Standards.

So you can, we could make the best machine since sliced bread, the next product line, and it's beaten, either throughput ... I can make these numbers up, right?

It's kicking out of the circuit board every hour and a half, which is faster in a plating cycle. We replaced it faster than the regular plating cycle, when it goes through everything, all the wash cycles and everything.

Let's just assume that's where we're trying to go, or something. This is like, if that happens, you could release it, and then the industry won't accept it, because everybody's nervous about what's the actual reliability? How do we actually think about this in design?

That's why it's important now, that we really engage our customers again, from in academia, but also in industry, in the R&D centers at the OEMs, because they need to learn how to think differently.

They don't have to, right? You can do the legacy board you've had forever, fine. But there's so many way better ways to do this, weight reduction, size reduction.

That's really, so it's important now, to start about that, to start those things. So then, as a industry, we can ensure that we have standards that we all feel good about, not start those standards three years from now, when that machine exists, and then we can all agree on it, three years from then after that.

We're trying to make sure those ecosystems systems get prepped now, to support the adoption of this technology, and that's the taller ...

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, and you say, "building the ecosystem." I think an important part of the ecosystem for a product, or a set of products that you guys are developing, is the material sets, right?

I mean, obviously what you guys are doing is totally different from the typical epoxy and glass weave, rigid materials. Obviously, it's not polyamide. Or is it?

Sean Patterson:
Yeah. I mean, so the machines we have today, DragonFly IV, the output of the DragonFly IV are prototyping boards and proof of concept boards. Again, they're functional, but we need to make sure the long term reliability is there.

So when we have today's dielectric, the one you see here, here's a pocket board with a coin battery, and a bunch of pockets as well. It's a FR4-like material so, glass weave.

By the way, you get better DF because of that. But so, today's materials is FR4-like, and the conductive ink is a silver nanoparticle ...

Zack Peterson:
Yeah.

Sean Patterson:
That is not yet at the connectivity as copper. But there's many cases where that doesn't matter, a lot of cases.
But also, when you start changing design, particularly in the RF spectrum, when an RF generally runs on the surface. But when you don't have to actually have, you don't have stub issues, you don't have to do 90-degree turns.

You can start on those things, even with today's material set, where we're at with our DK and the DF and TGs, et cetera, you can actually get better performance if you design with that in mind. Then you get all the wonderful goodness behind that of, oh, by the way, you can get it tomorrow in your print, and iterate faster.

So we are working on new material sets, both in-house and through partnerships. We just announced some publicly, if you look at our, our press releases, that are working on both new dielectrics, and new conductive materials, so that our customers have choices of no different than, we have choices in regular traditional PCB manufacturing.

But you still have to think differently, and accept them as something different. But it wasn't, can we get the industry back to build to spec, versus build to print?

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, I see what you mean. Like without DFM totally taking over the design?

Sean Patterson::
Right. Now, we have our own DFF things we apply, because you can't do everything.

Zack Peterson:
Well, sure. But I mean, with ...

Sean Patterson:
There's still limitations for how close you can think of that.

Zack Peterson:
Sure. But I mean, from what you're telling me, and from what I know of the product, the constraints are much looser in terms of what you can actually create.

You could do sideways, or 45-degree vias, let's say. Or you could do coaxial lines, directly printed, instead of cobbling it together, like we would in the PCB ...

Sean Patterson:
That's right.

Zack Peterson:
Where you've got two planes, and then a strip line, and then, you just line up vias. And that's your coax line.

Sean Patterson:
Exactly, exactly. I mean, you brought it up there, so there's some LEDs on edge, right? Trying to traditionally manufacture that, you'll lose it in the routing process.

You actually see these components, these resistors and capacitors, not the IC, but the resistors and capacitors there, and if I turn it on end, you don't see them.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah.

Sean Patterson:
Because it's embedded, one of the reasons we bought [SM Tech 00:30:05], by the way. We do this by hand. We stop the print, and then add it, and then we go, continue again. So when we have SM Tech fully ingrained in our future machines, it's about picking a place directly in there, picking place dispensing.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, so you just brought up something, actually. You guys did just acquire a company that does pick and place, and a printhead company. So you're really trying to vertically integrate the entire process into a single machine, or a set of machines.

Sean Patterson:
That's right. So I would call the acquisition of SM Tech as sort of a vertical integration into PCBA, but also adding things you can ever do before, where you're embedding active components inside of the boards, and it's nothing to do that.

As we go down, I don't know if it's as much vertical integration as controlling the deposition method, or we could say, it was just the printhead. Really, the engineering behind that is mainly driven by the print print industry, color printing, and people in 3D have been using these things, and different adjusting their viscosities to, and whatnot, to get through it.

Now we're able to control where the science meets the engineering, right at that head of the print head there, and the controller, in order to drive it for our purposes, while still satisfying the customers that we already have from GIS in the traditional print industry. So you'll see our, what may look like, as we go through our M&A activities, a holding company.

But it's the most strategic, beautiful thing I've ever seen is, we're not a holding company. We're buying these things and still operating those product lines, which is great, because we need more revenue, and things like that.

But we're doing it strategically, because there's something that we can integrate into the electronics printer, I'm going to call it AME printer, out of manufacture electronics, but to be all-encompassing of the future ones. Also, what technologies we've put into that, in particular, DeepCube, to apply to other things.

DeepCube is our machine learning company, because to really, really do this well, we're not going to be able to program every single layer, and how you understand different structures, right? So where's this artificial intelligence, the robotic brain that gives the feedback loop to making each layer, and adjusting, and having a real time AOI on every single layer? Though it's more than just AOI, so you have sort of closed loop process feedback, essentially.

Zack Peterson:
I have a quick question about that. So this isn't the typical approach with 3D printing, where you're basically generating STL files, send them off to a printer, click a button, and then it goes, right? This is it.

Sean Patterson:
No, it is. I mean, one, we can do global direct STL, but it is. But during the process, it is ensuring that we have that closed loop system, where we can adjust things that were seen.

Zack Peterson:
Oh, so it's adjusting ...

Sean Patterson:
And then it starts teaching itself.

Zack Peterson:
It's adjusting the parameters as it prints, to ensure that you get the yield, or you get the quality

Sean Patterson:
Yeah. Now that's where we're trying to go with it.

Zack Peterson:
I see.

Sean Patterson:
Because that is how you really drive the things that you can't, again, program, because you're never going to figure out how to do every single different structure that the creative engineers will try to do. And you discussed it here, right?

When you start talking about impedance matching and shielding, and all these things, effectively, the industry's kind of tricked it out in a 2D sense, and play all these hacky things, of ground planes, and all this kind of stuff.

But we don't have to do that. If you need coaxial shielding, print a coaxial cable in the middle of the board.

Zack Peterson:
Right.

Sean Patterson:

I have one, I don't have it with me. Or here's one. And again, I don't have it set up fully, but this is a low passive filter RF, with all passive components built into it. Because we can put capacitors in between there and there, even this sort of thin board, right? It's a thin board.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah.

Sean Patterson:
It's very thin board. Those capacitors that you see, the four squares, there's 55 layer capacitors, in a traditional sense, 55 layers, in that you can even get traditional laminates that small, even if you had, if you wanted to pay for capacitants, for those laminates.

We can just do it differently, and we can embed it in there. You get much closer for passive components to ideal than what you can actually get.

I showed you the capacitor, but I have plenty of other examples ... Do I have one here? But coils, right.

Everybody's coiled board, round the circle, through a via, round the circle through the via, Right? And for us, we can do a continuous spiral.

Yeah, in order to actually design it, you have to get into a ECAD, I'm sorry, from an ECAD into MCAD, to actually add that future. But that's what we do. So we really get much closer, and remove the parasitic effects of what the industry is used to.

Zack Peterson:
In terms of the integration with the assembly process, and then, integration with the, as you put it, AI that helps run the entire process, you also brought up total product 3D printing. I mean, do you really envision a day, where you basically have one machine, and you just click the button on the computer, and it spits out your iPhone? It just prints it right there. Is that just too far out?

Sean Patterson:
No, I mean that's our mission, is to make this industry 4.0, one click distributed manufacturing. We were at IPC Apex, and I was as FaceTiming my kids, "Daddy's here," kind of thing.

I was showing them around the show, and they get to see all the cool machines and all that kind of stuff. And it actually hit me, as I described to them, I was, "What my company's trying to do is take every single machine you see in this entire conference hall, put it in the size of two refrigerators, all of it."

It's the penultimate lean process. Now, again, we don't purport, by the way, that we're going to make every single circuit board in the world. I also want to ensure that competition actually comes. What we're doing is very altruistic, especially from an environmental sustainability point of view. When we say AME, that's not Nano Dimensions' AME.

It just so happens, there's a really long ways to do it, but we need AME to come to the world. Because, do we really need to mine all this copper just to remove 95, 97% of it, on every single signal layer?

Zack Peterson:
Yeah.

Sean Patterson:
It's crazy, right? We even, the industry has the term, etch off? What is etch off? Take it, take your laminate that already has copper off it. And that's the entire copper piece off, because I actually don't copper on that layer, I just need a thicker laminate.

We've done it this way since 1958, and we just haven't had catalyst events. I would say, the only things that we really added fundamentally are lasers, but lasers are still doing ...

Zack Peterson:
It's still subtractive.

Sean Patterson:
Just an imaging process. It's an imaging process, and then we do vias with it, and then there's a bunch of reliability issues.

Zack Peterson:
Right.

Sean Patterson:
With those stack microvias. And then, more plating cycles, and just more processing, but nothing fun.

Aside from that, these PCB plants have all these different processes, and what's the process of engineering there? It's like, I'm going to go to this machine A, and then B, and then C.

Then the next board is, "Well, I need to go B to C to A," but it's the same machines, fundamentally different. So when you focus in, from a lean manufacturing concept, when I was running a circuit board shop, you sit in front of the machine. How do we do this better, how do we do this better?

In that usually lean process, how do I get the process upstream and the process downstream to come together? We did some design of new equipment, and got lean in, at least we were the 800 pound gorilla at TTM, where I could get OEM equipment manufacturers' PCP production to lean in a little bit, and say, "Okay, let's go there and develop this." So I leaned it a little bit. This is ...

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, yeah. This is on steroids, right?

Sean Patterson:
Especially with SM Tech.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah.

Sean Patterson:
Exactly. And it is absolutely bold vision, but it's got to start somewhere.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, you both got to have a bold vision to get anywhere, I guess. I mean, that's totally fair.

Sean Patterson:
So yes, we do want to print these things, this fully assembled board, out the back, from thin air.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, so ...

Sean Patterson:
And I'd love it, if it was this drone fully assembled with a battery, and you could fly it out of the machine.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah.

Sean Patterson:
Why not?

Zack Peterson:
Well, and then print the battery, right?

Sean Patterson:
Yeah. Which, there's battery reprinted technology, we're not there yet. Again, with today's machines, just to be clear for everyone on the podcast, prints are prototyping proof concept boards. Everything we're talking about here is sort of grand visions of maybe how we try to get through the future.

Zack Peterson:
People that know me know I'm a physics and materials guy. So I definitely want to ask you some questions about the possible future materials sets. Given that you're able to basically, I don't want to say, print anything, but potentially engineer materials, different types of materials that could be printable, what other material sets do you see, besides just insulating dielectric, and then conductors?

Do we have semiconductors on the horizon? Do we have transparent materials on the horizon? Do we have transparent, flexible materials on the horizon?
Sean Patterson (39:30):
Since we're a public company, I can't discuss everything fully. We'll say, "This does not reflect the opinions of the company."

I think, one, you got to have new new metals. Everybody wants to say, "Oh, you need copper, because we use silver." I mean, technically silver in bulk is better than copper. It's expensive.

However, we're only putting down what you need, so it's a little different than what you're trying to do, when you mine everything, and then remove it all. And we have to have other metals, in order to actually get passive resistors the way you want them, or maybe there's other ways to check it out.

But there's also reasons to have different approaches to metals. Not all metals are going to probably be able to fit through in CAD, but we're going to try, we really believe in CAD technologies, what we did to do to get to the throughput we really need, but there's other deposition methods. Then we're not adverse to that, as we talk with other companies.

So we have a CI, or conductive ink line of attack, but even, again, at that, you need to talk to ... Somebody at IPIC grabbed me, and they're, "Oh, it's silver now, my customer needs copper."

And not even getting in into what we're working on, or why it's this, and we're working on copper, et cetera. That's the mentality is, "I only want to understand it, because my customer needs copper."

Zack Peterson:
Do they really need copper?

Sean Patterson:
Right.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah.

Sean Patterson:
Do they really know?

Zack Peterson:
Or do they just need a conductor? I mean, maybe they're doing something that has to be that element, and ... I don't know.

Sean Patterson:
But if it's just your ...

Zack Peterson:
But that isn't.

Yeah. Well, if it's just a rigid board, and it's just carrying a signal, you're right. It doesn't need to be copper. If it just needed to be copper, we wouldn't plate it up, or we wouldn't apply surface finishes to a finished board, right?

Sean Patterson:
Exactly.

Zack Peterson:
Because I mean, once you ...

Sean Patterson:
Yes. Which is the certainly, difficulty, by the way, of trying to deposit copper with air around it, and it's oxidizing, you're going on, and you have to get the next layer fast.

Zack Peterson:
Right, right.

Sean Patterson:
Those are the things you struggle with, but yes, exactly.

Zack Peterson:
Once you take into account the skin effect, I mean, the signal isn't even in the copper anymore anyways. So why do you care if it's copper or silver or gold or anything else?

Sean Patterson:
Yeah. Totally. And what's the best conductor in this? And that's the mindset, but in terms of dielectrics, again, we have an FR4-like material, we have no glass in it. So we have to think about different ways to strengthen, but redesign also gets you there.

We have people designing PLLs that are this big, and then making them 3D QPLLs, with active components embedded, and now you're getting down to that size. There's some examples on our website.

Different form factor. Why do people need flex everywhere? Well, there's uses for flex. There's a lot more flex now, because the connectorization, because the form factors, you're trying to put it in, where you shove it in there? Well, if you're actually designing, you can design the board in any shape you need, do you actually need flex.

Zack Peterson:
That's a fair question.

Sean Patterson:
Again, I'm not being over generalized, but there are reasons people go to flexes for those kind of reasons. Even at that, if we've printed, even with today's, we print it thin, you can bend it. We're not doing flexible, flexible.

Zack Peterson:
Well, then, there's also foldable for flex. But I'm sure, at some point, yeah.

Sean Patterson:
Right, it's a one-time. So why not just print the size you need, and make those connections that you need?

On the dielectric front, we're working on different things to strengthen it, but also, better TGs, we have a low temperature reflow process right now, with today's material, but it works, and it assembles. And then, certainly, in the RF spectrum getting better DF materials.

But even at that, I think, my opinion, and people are going to argue with me about this too, everyone goes, "Oh, you need Rogers, Rogers, Rogers." Well, one, really expensive. But oftentimes, when you really get down to it, it's way overdesigned half the time.

There are a bunch of good competitors out there, and not to pooh-pooh Rogers, but that's where everybody, because it's got this name recognition, that's what you need, so if we don't have Rogers print up material ...

By the way, Rogers just announced last week, they're going into 3D printing, and continuing. So they're coming along, too. You don't have to. You need the thing that operates for what you need.

For us, especially as you start mixing different dielectrics in the future, if you only need RF on this portion, then just use the RF over there, and then use this different dielectric here. You get your material costs down, because, it works today, the entire layer one, layer two have to be whatever RF du jour you have.

You either make sure you're the materials you're ordering are what you really need, versus what you're comfortable with. And I think that's just some of the bleed-in, of uncomfortableness of engineers to really want to go, "We've always used this material, so if we change it, even on a cost period, I don't have to requalify it."

We've really gotten in our own way for being creative and evolving. You know what I'm saying? Even when you change manufacturers, you have to requalify it, and all this kind of stuff, but it's the same thing at the end of the day.

As we're coming along here, we have to be able to design and iterate really fast, a la IPC 1958, right? But now, it's so locked in, and for right reasons, don't get me wrong.

Because, especially in the low mix, high volume, or I'm sorry, the high mix, low volume world, most of the things you're doing will probably kill people if you don't get it right. So there's the right things to do, but you really need to come back to what's the essence, what's the reason that you're doing those things, and have those engineers come on this journey with you and disrupt?

Then people will get comfortable with it in a time, and we'll do the right things. And we'll work as an industry to try to get these things into the correct standards, or match the slash sheet to the best of our ability, and realize that again, it's built to spec, versus built print.

Zack Peterson:
Yeah. Well, I think we're going to have to leave it there, and just note that the future looks bright for Nano Dimension, and it's great to see how far you guys have come.

I remember meeting some guys from Nano Dimension a couple years ago, and I could tell, they wanted to get to this point where you're at now, and it's great to see that you guys have been so successful. And I wish you all the continued success that you guys deserve.

Sean Patterson:
Great. Appreciate your time, as well.

Zack Peterson:
Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming on to the OnTrack Podcast. And for all of the viewers and listeners out there, just remember, don't stop learning, and stay on track.

Go check out some of the links we have in the show notes, go check out the Nano Dimension website, and learn more about this very interesting technology. Sean, thank you so much for joining us.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA), and he previously served on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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