Additive PCB Manufacturing: The Vaccine for Electronics Supply Shocks?

JF Brandon
|  June 1, 2020
Additive PCB manufacturing and supply chain volatility

At this time, at least a quarter of the world’s population is under quarantine, with workers unable to go to offices or factories, leading to fundamental disabling of the world economy. The electronics industry is suffering greatly as well, dealing with a supply shock from factories shutting down in Southeast Asia, to demand-side shocks from Western markets literally shutting down. Worst of all, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an enormous demand for ventilators and other hospital equipment, and deliveries of even the most basic circuit boards required to power such devices is expected to take five to eight weeks.

Disposable items such as masks, face-shields, and the like have become scarce commodities for front-line healthcare workers, and 3D Printing has stepped in to provide a breath of fresh air. Stratasys has leveraged its distributed manufacturing network to create 5,000 units of personal protective equipment for immediate distribution. Makerspaces, such as Baltimore Node, have picked up the slack, creating and donating face-masks made on their 3D printers for area clinics and hospitals. Local makers have linked up with leading medical institutions to meet demand. Within days of the first infection in the Washington state area, UW Medicine began working with local maker Tim Prestero, relying on his studio manufacturing tools to design, print and deliver masks to healthcare workers managing the outbreak. 3D printing has demonstrated that skilled engineers with a few machines can truly change the world.

In essence, every business that relies on 3D printing for prototyping and production has taken the pandemic as an opportunity to show what is really possible, directing their capabilities from day-to-day activities to a focus on satisfying demand during a global pandemic. It’s rare throughout history that such a thing has happened; in wartime it has been the Fords and the mechanisms of government that fight back. Now it is the electrical engineers taking the lead with additive PCB manufacturing.

Additive PCB Manufacturing Bringing Change

But what does the electrical engineer have? Prototyping at a workbench hasn’t been easy, and sending out for a small number of boards typically takes a week or more. Additive PCB manufacturing changes this dynamic; the electrical engineer can take ownership of their fabrication process and can produce on-demand, rather than waiting for a fab house.

In the past 5 years, huge technological leaps in dielectric and metal inks, and in materials processing equipment, have made additive PCB manufacturing possible at a smaller scale than the traditional, factory-level process seen today. Electronics has always been most interested in miniaturization; now the factory itself has the potential to be shrunk down and become much more automated. Israeli-based Nano Dimension recently released their new lights-out digital manufacturing solution, a new generation of machinery which is capable of printing PCBs continuously and without human intervention. New York-based BotFactory has focused on creating comparatively inexpensive, desktop-sized devices that can be placed on an Engineer’s desktop. Both types of systems use inkjet processes to create a circuit board, where the dielectric and conductor are deposited in a layer-by-layer process to create a fully functional PCB.

Additive PCB manufacturing for electronics
Multiple additive PCB manufacturing processes can be used to print this type of small PCB.

These technologies have made leaps and bounds in the past 5 years. These advances span everything from materials development to scaling processes that were formerly confined to research labs. Here are some of the recent developments in additive PCB manufacturing and how they are helping electronics companies absorb supply chain shocks.

The promise of additive PCB manufacturing is instantaneous local production directly from digital designs, which allows industry to keep spitting out devices on-demand in times of crisis. Medical devices typically have the highest tolerances, and post processing methods are required to ensure the technology can be used in end products. Reliability is all the more critical if a patient's life is potentially at risk. As 3D printing is already being used in ventilator parts, it seems natural to use additive PCB manufacturing to produce a finished product, including the circuit board. While depositing a substrate and traces is possible today, integration with testing systems (flying probes, etc.) is needed to ensure that the highest level of quality is being reached. This is the next step in additive PCB manufacturing.

The Future of Design and Additive PCB Manufacturing

Pandemics are one hundred year events, but additive PCB manufacturing can help electronics companies meet market demand in an agile way. Giving engineers the opportunity to work from home is the definition of quarantining, but doing this successfully takes the right design and collaboration tools. Looking to the future, the electronics industry will need to have to ensure engineers have better design tools to continue innovating in the face of supply chain shocks. 

Just as PCB designers need access to fabrication tools, they also need access to design tools for creating PCBs that can be placed into an additive PCB manufacturing process. Since these engineers need to work remotely in times of crisis, they also need design tools to keep them productive and allow design sharing. If you need to design new circuit boards for additive PCB manufacturing, you’ll need some of these basic features:

  • MCAD integration and printing instruction generation. Some 3D printer manufacturers for PCBs provide an MCAD plugin that will generate printing instructions from your design data. When you can import your new design into MCAD tools, you can create your mechanical enclosure and generate printing instructions in a single program.
  • Adaptable design rules. Every 3D printer comes with its own DFM rules, and these rules need to be programmed into your PCB design software. Rules-driven PCB design software will check your layout as you create your board, ensuring you can 3D print your new board without errors.
  • Collaboration features. Engineers need to rise to the challenge in a crisis, even when working remotely. A set of strong collaboration tools that integrate with different ECAD and MCAD programs can help designers create better products in less time.
Additive PCB manufacturing in Altium Concord Pro
Remote design teams can design an entire product for 3D printing, including the enclosure and PCB, using Altium Designer and Altium Concord Pro.

Considering the potential of additive PCB manufacturing to make teams more agile, companies should consider investment in new technologies like additive PCB manufacturing, where desktop PCB fabrication tools are as fundamental as an oscilloscope or multimeter. The collaboration, data sharing, and MCAD integration tools in Altium Concord Pro also give distributed teams of designers everything they need to design PCBs for additive manufacturing processes. Designers can create powerful new technology from home and quickly put new designs into production with Altium Concord Pro.

Altium Concord Pro on Altium 365 delivers an unprecedented amount of integration to the electronics industry until now relegated to the world of software development, allowing designers to work from home and reach unprecedented levels of efficiency.

We have only scratched the surface of what is possible to do with Altium Concord Pro on Altium 365. You can check the product page for a more in-depth feature description or one of the On-Demand Webinars.

About Author

About Author

I work where advanced Technology and Business intersect, putting them together in the right manner to make them greater than the sum of their parts. I also invent and make machines. I like meeting people and making deals. I prefer working with startups or as a part of a small, dedicated team in a big company. I like to think that if you can't scale an idea to touch a billion people, it's not worth following. It might take years, but whatever I do today might be used by the World later.

Currently a part of BotFactory helping develop a revolutionary Desktop PCB Electronics 3D Printer that can print traces as well as assemble boards.

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