Unless you’ve been living under a rock without WiFi, you’ve probably read about the exploding number of applications for 3D printing. Innovators have created everything from cars to office buildings, even a lawn mower using 3D printing techniques. But one area of huge potential that gets less press is the use of additive manufacturing for electronics. Yet, the marriage of electronics and 3D printing has enormous implications for electronic device design and manufacturing. The biggest impact may be related to prototyping of printed circuit boards.
While the potential for using 3D printed electronics was immediately apparent to many in the space, its practical application is still in its infancy. This isn’t because manufacturers and designers are disinterested, in fact, the opposite is true. The delay in adoption is largely because building 3D printers for the creation of circuit boards is incredibly complicated and standard inks and printers simply couldn’t tackle the task. In order to create a PCB, the printer must be able to print conductive traces and produce components that meet narrow performance requirements.
Professional Grade Requirements
There are some 3D printers which have been successful at including some conductive traces through a process that involves embedding basic wiring by extruding conductive filaments. These printers produce a low-resolution, point-to-point conductive trace that may be fine for some maker projects, but are not up to the exacting standards of professional electronics. In order to be ready for prime time, more advanced printers and materials that produce higher resolution, higher conductivity results are required.
There are conductive circuit printer systems in the market today. They create one or even two-sided PCBs by printing conductive traces on a substrate. This approach is not the same as 3D printed electronics. In 3D printing, a PCB is created on a substrate with layer after layer of material built up to result in an interconnected 3D printed circuit board. This requires very specialized equipment and cutting-edge materials.
What it Takes to Get There
Creating true 3D printers for electronics requires the development of extraordinarily accurate hardware that operates on three axes. It also necessitates engineering specialty inks at the nanoparticle level. Of course, sophisticated software that makes it all work is also required. In addition to controlling the printing process, the software will also need to convert PCB Gerber design files, which are currently used for 2D PCB printing, into 3D printable formats. The software must instruct the 3D printer to create the substrate at the required thickness, leave and fill holes where vias are needed, and much more. When the printers, inks, and software become readily available in the market, electronics manufacturing will likely see a 3D revolution.
Although getting there will be a challenge, the is significant upside to 3D printed circuit boards for the electronics and other industries. Innovators and manufacturers alike are anxious to get their hands on the first professional grade 3D printers.
The approach is obviously an excellent fit for rapid prototyping, potentially reducing the time to create a PCB prototype to just hours. It will even be possible to print the PCB in sections and test them independently. Iteration will be quicker as well, meaning an overall decrease in time to market. In the long run 3D printing has the potential to reduce the cost of prototyping and even production PCB printing. Perhaps the most compelling advantage of all is the potential for practically unlimited design flexibility.
3D PCBs of the Future
For now, prototyping is likely the “killer app” for 3D printing of circuit boards. It will likely be a long time before the approach is used for mass production. But in the future, 3D printing will allow innovators to re-conceptualize the PCB entirely. Rather than designing circuits to be inserted into an object, developers will be able to print circuits within things. They may even play a structural role. Smaller objects will be possible and product performance optimization will be enhanced. Inventors will be freed from many of the rules that dictate how products look and function today.
3D printing is already changing our ideas about what it is and is not possible to make. Although we’re not quite there yet, the electronics manufacturing industry will soon be able to leverage the approach to change the way that products are built, tested, and delivered to the market. We can’t wait to see where it takes us.