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3D printing method allows rapid PCB prototyping

Posted: 22 Apr 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:3D printing  PCB prototyping  PCB design 

It is undeniable that 3D printing is here to stay. But where does it fit in the area of additive manufacturing for electronics? Putting together electronics and 3D printing can sure have implications, especially in printed circuit boards and rapid prototyping in the electronic industry.

Not surprisingly, the 3D printed electronics space is in its infancy, more or less at the same level of adoption as regular 3D prototyping was in 2009. But its slow adoption is not from a lack of interest or need; rather, it's because creating 3D printers for PCBs is exceedingly complex and existing inks and printers just weren't up to the challenge. These printers must be able to print conductive traces, which is the domain of printed electronics and produce components that meet the demanding performance requirements of aerospace, defence, consumer electronics, Internet of Things and even wearables.

Printer nuances

Certainly, there already are some 3D printers capable of including some conductive traces by embedding basic wiring by extruding of conductive filaments. The end result of these types of printing techniques is a low-resolution, point-to-point conductive trace that may be suitable for hobbyists but not for professional electronics. Higher resolution and higher conductivity that meets the needs of professional electronics requires more advanced printing solutions and materials.

Other actual conductive circuit printer systems are available today. They are designed to print conductive traces on one and sometimes both sides of a substrate, creating two-sided PCBs. These printed electronics are not the same as 3D printed electronics, however, which builds up a PCB on a substrate with layer after layer of material, creating a true multi-layer, interconnected, 3D-printed circuit board. To 3D-print electronics requires advanced materials and highly specialised equipment.

3D printers and materials for PCBs

Developing systems for true 3D-printed electronics involves creating exceedingly precise hardware with three axes: X, Y and Z. It also requires using speciality inks that are engineered at the nanoparticle level. The final element needed is advanced software that ties it all together, including the ability to effortlessly convert standard PCB Gerber design files—which are designed for 2D manufacturing environments—into 3D printable files. This allows for the 3D printer to print the substrate to the required thickness, leave and fill holes where vias are required, and more. Software for the design and validation of freeform circuit geometries isn't yet readily available in the marketplace but will open up further electronics design abilities.

Still, despite the complexities of building such 3D printers, the benefits of using them are obvious for electronics and other industries. PCB designers and electronics engineers are eager for the first 3D printers for professional printed electronics to emerge. My company will answer that call when the Nano Dimension DragonFly 2020 3D Printer, which we've been demonstrating at shows including CES 2016, becomes available commercially later this year. It is anticipated to be the first entrant into this new class of high resolution enterprise 3D printers.

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