When 3D Printing Meets PCBs

The convergence of electronics and 3D printing will bring the PCB prototyping in-house.

Open any magazine and it’s clear that applications for 3D printing are exploding. Yet one area that remains largely unexplored is the use of additive manufacturing for electronics. The convergence of electronics and 3D printing will have staggering implications for the electronics industry—particularly around printed circuit boards and rapid prototyping.

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, defense, 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 specialized 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 specialty 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.

Practical uses and benefits for prototyping
Interest in these highly specific 3D printers is very high. The possibility of using additive manufacturing to create professional PCBs offers manufacturers the flexibility of printing their own circuit board prototypes in-house for rapid prototyping, R&D, or even for custom manufacturing projects. While it is unlikely that 3D printers for electronics will replace all of the traditional processes for in-house development of high-performance electronic device applications, they will be particularly useful for prototyping, reducing time to build from weeks to just hours.

Manufacturers adopting this new technology can expect a variety of gains, including cutting their time to market with new products and speeding iterations and innovation around PCBs. With a 3D PCB printer, they can even build and test PCBs in sections if they’d like.

For many, one of the most exciting developments with this technology is that they will no longer need to send out their intellectual property to be manufactured off-site by specialist sub-contractors—which essentially puts their IP at risk. For others, the promise of rapid prototyping, significant reductions in the development costs and increased competitive edge are the most important benefits.

But perhaps most importantly, 3D printing for circuit boards offers nearly limitless design flexibility.

A printed circuit board printed on a Nano Dimension 3D printer. (Source: Nano Dimension)

A printed circuit board printed on a Nano Dimension 3D printer. (Source: Nano Dimension)

With traditional PCB prototyping, turnaround times of weeks or even months for multiple iterations while perfecting a design can wreak havoc on time-to-market. Given that, many designers opt for more conservative designs. Printing the PCB prototypes in-house means designers can risk being more creative without slowing the development process.

Also, manufacturing currently requires multiple specialized (and expensive) techniques, such as precision drilling, chemical etching, plating, pressing and lamination. These techniques, which are usually outsourced to companies in Asia, could all be done easily with in-house 3D printing in just hours, even when the PCB has multiple layers and many interconnects.

3D printing of PCBs will help to keep up with the changing needs of customers who require device miniaturization and customization.