3D printing has been revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. Once you have your completed design, just feed it into your printer and press a button, and it can be fabricated automatically. 3D printing is used for fast and easy prototyping of all sorts of complex and intricate items. So why not use it to fabricate your completed printed circuit board designs? Well, because when it comes to PCBs, there’s a better way.
The Problem with 3D Printing PCBs
3D printing is cheap and easy—when you’re printing relatively simple items using basic polymers. A printer that can print with several different materials, including copper, and at the intricate level of detail necessary to create a working PCB, is much more expensive and takes much longer.
Printing the entire PCB is therefore impractical for most purposes. However, the board’s enclosure is generally made of fiberglass, which can be printed fairly cheaply and easily. Once you’ve done that, you can use that enclosure in conjunction with a true PCB prototype, fabricated in the traditional, reliable way, rather than printed. This will save you both time and money, while delivering a better overall prototype.
3D PCB Software Modeling
In order to make a prototype work in this way, you need to be able to create a 3D model of your PCB within the design software. PCBs contain such intricate detail at such a small level that regular, 2D designs often can’t fully capture them. As such, if you’re 3D printing your enclosure, but only have 2D design software, it makes accuracy more difficult. Clearance checking from track to hole, or from pad to hole, is an iffy proposition at best. As such, the chances of printing the board correctly the first time are low. Prototypes end up with errors, and you end up wasting a lot of time and materials—which amounts to wasting more money as well.
The only way to prototype properly is with 3D modeling software. This will help you visualize the design more accurately and in better detail, and aid in the manufacture. But the question is, how do you design in three dimensions? Most PCB design software platforms don’t include 3D capabilities. And the ones that do, like Eagle, turn it into a very expensive add-on, which isn’t the best idea if you’re trying to cut down on costs.
However, there are a few PCB design platforms that offer 3D modeling either as a standard feature with the basic software package or as a free or low-cost download. And as we’ve seen, it’s well worth the time and effort to find a platform that provides you with these capabilities. 3D visualization provides for more detailed designs that are more accurately representative of what the completed board will look like. Because of this, they’re able to provide for real time clearance checking, before you build the board. This will cut down on how many prototypes you turn out, saving you both time and money.
3D printing is not essential for your PCB prototyping, and can cause more problems than it solves if not used correctly. 3D modeling software, however, IS essential. No matter what kind of fabrication you use, 3D modeling will help you perform clearance checks more efficiently and build better PCBs, faster and cheaper. What more could you ask for in a PCB design software?
About the Author
Alexsander joined Altium as a Technical Marketing Engineer and brings years of engineering expertise to the team. His passion for electronics design combined with his practical business experience provides a unique perspective to the marketing team at Altium. Alexsander graduated from one of the top 20 universities in the world at UCSD where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering.
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