Non-planar designs and side-mounted components are next up for 3-D printing.
It is true that even today, so many years after 3-D printing started to garner attention and acclaim, rapid prototyping remains the single most common use for 3-D printers. 3-D printers offer advantages in the form of shorter turnaround times, improved development secrecy and greater design freedoms. But it is also true 3-D printing isn’t going to remain primarily a tool for rapid prototyping much longer.
Those keeping abreast of events in the worlds of design, construction, manufacturing or medicine will be keenly aware of the impact of additive manufacturing in these fields. Certain products have been rapidly affected by the arrival of additive manufacturing. Prime examples are hearing aids and dental aligners. Both markets have been transformed by the adoption of 3-D printing technologies. Additive is now the default manufacturing technology for such products.
Now, the emergence of additive manufacturing to make final parts correlates well with products that require:
The arrival and evolution of additive manufacturing in the mechanical world is something people are now familiar with. That it is beginning to have a similar impact in other domains such as medical and electrical functionality is becoming more obvious. The underlying advantages remain the same, but the systems and materials required to deliver the results are very different.
What makes additive manufacturing of electronics different? For additive manufacturing to make inroads into the world of electronics requires several ingredients the traditional additive manufacturing toolset doesn’t include. Resolutions need to be better; multiple materials need to be printed simultaneously in the same machine, and materials must support high temperatures and have specific dielectric properties.
For additive manufacturing to provide a compelling offering to the electrical engineer, the approach must deliver ways to speed prototyping, bring it in-house and open doors to entirely new ways of designing and manufacturing electronics. The same recipe that has brought much success to 3-D printing is now in place to do the same to this new electrical domain.
Deposition of materials is key. An additive manufacturing approach is clearly based on precise deposition of materials. This is a layer-by-layer additive process, whereby specific materials are placed in specific locations to build up an integrated functional part in a one-system print process.
For an engineer looking to speed current R&D cycles, this means bypassing much of the waiting involved in traditional outsourced prototyping. Going from design to functional part in a matter of hours can change how innovators and R&D groups practice their craft. This can get a validated circuit board from PCB design much more quickly. Given the flexibility of additive manufacturing, the engineer can also consider electrical applications beyond traditional PCBs, including designs for antennas, printed capacitance, electromagnets and molded interconnect devices (MIDs).
Rapid progress from design to part. To be clear, additive manufacturing of electronics is not limited to PCBs. It is also used for other types of application development, including devices with new requirements and increasingly complex formats. It’s an ideal fit when faced with geometrical complexity, portability and very small dimensions, such as those for semiconductor applications, medical devices, Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things, etc.
When designing a standard planar PCB, operating a 3-D printer doesn’t require anything other than the traditional Gerber and Excellon output files. Traditional EDA PCB design packages are focused on meeting the needs of today’s electrical engineers. This means the ability to design circuits and systems of circuits that are rigid or flexible, planar, multilayered, high-speed-compatible and so on. All these can then readily output files that can then be used by the 3-D printer.
A new way of thinking. Additive manufacturing is now leading to new ways of thinking about old challenges. Some of these require design tools that can design in the third dimension and design new capabilities.
Where are we heading? Additive manufacturing of electronics, whether circuits, antennas or components, is very much a reality. No doubt we are in the early days of the revolution, but 3-D printing electronics is here. Developing and deploying increasingly rapid, reliable and material-agnostic printers will only further use of this technology. The addition of a broad range of advanced, 3-D printable materials and sophisticated electrical design packages capable of truly non-planar electrical design and simulation will see this grow to an everyday part of the electrical engineer’s toolkit.
co-founded Nano Dimension and has worked as a consultant on projects covering sales, marketing and strategy across the automotive, financial, retail and telecom industries.