3D printing and electronics may still seem to be somewhat of a novelty, but the technology is poised to bring huge changes to the industry.
While the technology is still primarily used as a prototyping tool, the benefits of 3D printing – from faster time-to-market, greater freedom of design and customisation – can be leveraged by the electronics industry.
How Does 3D Printing with Electronics Work?
3D printing of electronics typically involves the use of material jetting technology. Using this process, conductive and insulating inks are jetted on the printing surface in lines as thin as few microns. UV light is then applied to solidify the inks.
One notable feature of material jetting is that it facilitates multi-material 3D printing. For the electronics industry, this means that functional circuitry and enclosures can be manufactured simultaneously in a single printing process, significantly simplifying the assembly process.
5 Benefits of 3D Printing Electronics
1. In-house prototyping
In an industry as competitive as electronics, the demand for smaller, thinner devices with improved functionality is inevitable.
However, developing a prototype of a Printed Circuit Board (PCB) – the core of any electronic device – and other electronic parts is often challenging, and this task is very often outsourced. This typically results in prolonged lead times, and outsourcing in this context can also be coupled with intellectual property concerns. However, the advent of 3D printing means that creating prototypes of circuits and circuit boards can move in-house, allowing electronics manufacturers to reduce procurement expenses whilst eliminating any concerns about IP infringement.
2. Faster time-to-market
Producing prototypes in-house can create efficiencies during the product design stage. 3D printing enables a faster turnaround of design iterations, speeding up the design validation stage. By developing products much faster, electronics manufacturers gain a competitive advantage and achieve more flexible manufacturing.
3. Design flexibility
3D printing opens up opportunities to design complex shapes and components. For example, multilayer circuits can now be 3D printed on non-flat, flexible surfaces, which would not be possible with traditional manufacturing techniques. 3D printing also enables engineers to design for functionality instead of manufacturability, meaning that complex structures with embedded electronics, encapsulated sensors, and antennas can be more readily produced.
3D printing expands the capabilities of manufacturing customised electronics. Engineers at the University of Minnesota, for example, are researching the potential of customised sensors 3D printed directly on skin. Although the customisation of electromechanical parts via 3D printing is still in its infancy, customised consumer electronics is already a reality. 3D printing can be used to create personalised electronic enclosures, USB stick cases and keyboards.
5. Simplified supply chain
Manufacturers choosing to bring their production of electronics in-house using 3D printing could have a significant impact on the supply chain. Internal manufacturing has the benefit of simplified or even reduced outsourcing, reducing the associated costs of delivery and shipping. 3D printing of electronics also lowers warehousing and distribution costs thanks to on-demand manufacturing and the opportunity to create a digital inventory.
What Systems are Available?
Nano Dimension’s DragonFly Pro System
Nano Dimension specialises in 3D printed multi-layer PCB prototypes on various substrates (rigid and flexible). Its DragonFly Pro System 3D printer relies on material jetting technology and is capable to print PCBs with various features like interconnectors. Nano Dimension’s system is notable for multi-material 3D printing, using proprietary conductive and dielectric inks simultaneously to manufacture functional circuits and antennas.
Optomec’s Aerosol Jet Technology
Optomec is another company changing the game for D printed electronics. The US-based company has developed its Aerosol Jet technology for 3D printing micron-size electronics. Optomec offers a line of Aerosol Jet systems capable to produce flexible PCBs, conformal antennas, sensors, and moulded interconnected devices. The noteworthy feature of the Aerosol Jet 3D printers is that they are compatible with already commercially available materials.
German-based Neotech AMT specialises in the hybrid 3D printing of electronics. Its system, the PJ 15X, combines CNC motion platform and 3D capable print heads to produce conductors, semi-conductors, heater patterns, resistors and more. The machine is designed for applications in product development and rapid prototyping.
BotFactory PCB 3D printers
Low-cost prototyping of circuit boards is now possible with the BotFactory line of 3D printers. The systems use an inkjet technology to lay down small droplets of conductive and insulating inks on various substrates. The desktop systems are ones of the most affordable options for 3D printing of electronic components on the market today.
Prototyping is still the most commonly used application of 3D printing within the electronics industry. Looking ahead, however, 3D printing could become a viable technique for producing wearable or embedded sensors for real-time health monitoring. Additionally, 3D printed sensors could be built into lenses to enable augmented reality applications, whilst 3D printed embedded electronics could be used in objects from smartphones to cars, adding functionality whilst making them lighter.
But before we see these applications gaining traction, there are several challenges that need to be tackled. Firstly, design software will need to be developed that can define how electronic components can be printed within the part itself. Currently, such design software is still in its infancy, although this is expected to advance over the next few years. Another challenge is the development of the materials suitable for 3D printing at nanoscale, as many electronic components are nanometer-sized.
However, in spite of these challenges, 3D printing electronics has all the chances to follow the same path as early adopters of the technology like automotive and aerospace. As the technology matures and new players enter the market, we expect that 3D printing of electronics could eventually shift from being solely a prototyping tool to direct, end production.