Any tech based magazine or tabloid on the internet is exploding with news of 3D printing and rapid prototyping being used extensively all over the world. However, the one field of technology that the golden fingers of 3D printing have not touched is the electronics sector. When electronics is converged with 3D printing, the results are revolutionary. The electronics industry is going to be immensely benefitted particularly through rapid prototyping and manufacturing printed circuit boards. Even though the use of 3D printing in electronics is still advancing with baby steps, this slow pace is not due to the lack of need, interest or research. Rather, building appropriate 3D printers to print PCBs can be a really complicated process. There is also the fact that some of the popular inks and printer models are not up to the mark for this challenge. The requirements for PCBs are that the printers should print conductive traces. In this domain of electronics, parts can be printed and produced for aerospace, consumer electronics, defense, Internet of Things and even wearable electronics.
Of course, there are some 3D printers available today that are in fact, able to include conductive traces. This is accomplished by embedding basic wiring through conductive filament extruding. The final product that we get from this type of printing technique turns out point to point with low resolution conductive traces that are not detailed enough for use in professional electronics manufacturing. For that, there definitely needs to be higher conductivity and resolution that meets the professional standards, using more advanced printing materials, techniques and solutions. There are some actual printer systems that print out conductive circuits which are designed to print traces on one or both sides of the substrate. This process produces two sided PCBs, which are not the same as 3D printed electronic circuits. However, this does build the substrate layer by layer, creating a multilayered, interconnected and 3D printed electronic circuit board. Hence, we definitely need specialized machines and equipment to obtain 3D printed electronics.
In order to develop systems that can print sophisticated electronics using 3D technology, there should be no compromise with the precision of the hardware. There needs to be three axes X, Y, Z for these precise hardware parts. Also, the inks need to be specially engineered at their nanoparticle level. However, what ties everything together is advanced software. This type of software has the ability to convert the 2D-compatible design files of PCB Gerber type into 3D printable ones. This conversion enables the 3D printing device to print out substrate to the recommended level and thickness while filling holes where required. Validation and design software for the freeform geometry of circuit is not widely available in the current market. When available, these are going to open up new avenues for further advancements in electronic design.
Even though there still remains some pronounced complexities when it comes to printing of PCB, there are definitely some major benefits for electronics and electronics based industries. Electronics engineers and PCB designers are keen on developing the first professional line of 3D printers that can help 3D printed electronic components emerge. One such model is the much anticipated Nano Dimension Dragonfly 2020- a 3D printer that is being demonstrated at summits such as CES 2016. This model will make its commercial debut at the end of the year and is expected to be the first of the new class of high resolution 3D printers for the electronics enterprise.
Another category where PCB printing can help is rapid prototyping of electronic components. The highly specialized 3D printers that print out traces for electronics are at the peak of interest. The possibility that professional quality PCBs can be created through additive manufacturing allows manufacturers the liberty to print their own prototypes of circuit boards in house i.e. for rapid prototyping, custom manufacturing, research and development. It is, however, rather unlikely that these processes will replace the traditional methods of developing high performance applications and electronic devices in house. Rather, they would be of great use for the purpose of prototyping; which reduces build time from entire weeks to a mere few hours. Some of the benefits that manufacturers can expect from this technology include reducing the time to market for products, speeding up of iterations and facilitating innovation for PCBs. 3D printers specialized in PCB can even help test and build PCBs in sections of their choice.
However, some manufacturers believe that the technology would not require them to send their intellectual property for off-site manufacturing, which has been traditionally done by subcontractors which puts the IPs of the manufacturers at risk. Then there remains the potential of rapid prototyping, reduction of development cost and the increase in competitive innovation. The largest of the benefits, however, remains in the fact that 3D printing provides unprecedented flexibility of design, speed and innovation.
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