After nearly three decades of cutting-edge innovation, 3D printing technology is evolving from plastics-and metals-based additive manufacturing processes to the next logical step: multi-material 3D printing and the ability to incorporate functional electronic elements into print jobs.
This next-generation of 3D printing offers the promise of new ways to make devices that are smart and connected for Internet of Things (IoT) applications. The breakthrough is achieved by the simultaneous use of electronically conductive and isolating materials within one print process. Today, the technology makes it possible to produce multi-layer 3D printed electronics – such as functioning circuit boards, non-planar circuits, sensors, antennas and other elements.
For designers, these next-generation printers open new doors to greater design and manufacturing freedom as they will allow for the design and printing of complex elements with the additional option of embedded components.
With always-rising demand for innovative applications and new functionalities, in just several years’ time 3D printing with multi-materials promises to change the way companies create products. Imagine what your phone, smart watch, sensor, pacemaker, smart speakers, hearing aids or other devices would and could look like when designers are not limited by the form-factors, shapes and sizes dictated by traditional manufacturing processes., New shapes and the embedding of electronic elements means that smart-product customization and optimization become more attainable.
What are 3D printed electronics?
3D printed electronics are simply 3D printed products that are either functional electronic components, like a PCB, or that contain electronic components, like a an IoT device. These products can be made with high-resolution multi-material inkjet 3D printers using advanced nano materials — including nano-technology based conductive inks. Using 3D printers, developers can create – layer-by-layer, in one system – objects with electronic circuitry. Such manufacturing truly ushers in the era of a ‘factory-in-a-box’.
Printers for printed electronics are beginning to reshape the electronics industry, helping designers better address the demand for devices that might require unique shapes, smaller footprints, increasingly sophisticated features, or that rely on quick development of complex multilayer circuit boards or other electronic features, such as antennas. Industries that are among the first to explore the possibilities of 3D printed electronics include consumer electronics, medical devices, defense, aerospace, automotive, IoT, telecommunications and more.
Today, the 3D printed electronics industry is in its early stages, with most users taking advantage of the technology to rapidly create, in house, working circuit prototypes and to conduct small-run manufacturing. That’s because this type of agile electronics development offers design teams the ability to view and test their products at the end of each phase of the development cycle. Faster, more frequent iterations enable rapid prototyping and can generate an appetite for innovation. They can build and then test just certain parts of circuit boards, for instance, and make improvements throughout the development process. Building electronics this way helps designers and developers save time, money and improve their end products. It also can eliminate lengthy lead times and the expense and complexity of design iterations close to product launch.
How does the 3D printer for printed electronics work?
The first available 3D printer for printed electronics is the DragonFly 2020 Pro 3D Printer from Nano Dimension, which marries high-resolution inkjet technology with advanced nano-particle inks. The printer works on three axes — X, Y and Z — representing width, depth and height. The printer’s extremely precise deposition system uses advanced inkjet print heads with hundreds of small nozzles to simultaneously 3D-print silver nanoparticle conductive inks (metals) and insulating inks (polymers).
Not only is it fast and flexible, printing electronics this way is also more environmentally friendly because the printer uses only the materials required to build the electrical element. There is no waste as is found in traditional circuit manufacturing. Moreover, there is no post-processing required on the circuits as they are complete and functional when they emerge from the printer – complete with the full range of interconnects such as through-holes, vias and so on. No drilling, pressing, plating or etching is required.
In the case of the DragonFly 2020 Pro, the printer works with dedicated proprietary software, called Switch, that converts complex 2D Gerber design files into layer-by-layer print instructions for 3D printing. The Gerber file is loaded into the printer’s interface and then the system automatically calculates the ink drop placement.
With this type of 3D printing, there is no limit to the layer count that can be printed on the DragonFly, beyond the mechanical height of the printer’s Z axis. The speed of the print depends on the number of layers, the complexity and conductivity of the circuits as well as the board size. Depending on design for example, a large complex, 10-layer board can be 3D printed the same day.
Among the major benefits of 3D printed electronics today are the following:
- New design possibilities
- Iterative design options
- In-house prototyping
- Small-batch printing
- Safety of intellectual property for sensitive designs
- Faster time to market
Beyond PCBs, printers like the DragonFly 2020 Pro can also produce non-planar 3D objects that contain 3D-circuitry, moving 3D printing beyond traditional electronics formats of multilayer flat circuits to electrically functional structures for a wide range of development, custom and small-scale production projects. The application possibilities are endless including flexible, rigid PCBs and embedded components. Products are becoming more and more a combination of sub-systems and to facilitate this systems design is leading to the steady integration of the EDA and MCAD spaces. Electrical and mechanical are becoming electro-mechanical parts or mechatronics.
What this all means is additive manufacturing offers designers more freedom in their designs, accelerates the design and manufacturing process and increases the efficiency of producing customized products. That said, it remains likely that widespread higher-volume production will continue through traditional channels for the foreseeable future.
How can companies use this technology?
- In-house printing – for example making electrical jigs, production support parts, redistribution layers, risers and more. In-house prototyping – testing electrical circuits, boards, sensors, antennas and other items before sending them out for mass production.
- External service bureaus – creating businesses in which designers can provide their designs through email for printing and testing much more quickly than going through a traditional prototyping facility.
A fast-approaching future
In the next several years, expect more advancements and increased affordability in 3D printing. Also expect a lot more industrial uses for 3D printing and 3D printed electronics. The anticipation is for increases in printing speeds, print resolutions, printing sizes and more opportunities for incorporating various additional materials – such as polymers, metals and ceramics — into single print jobs, making it possible to build even more advanced electrical properties into mechanical objects.
Tomorrow’s 3D printing technology – already emerging today – is truly ready to disrupt, reshape and redefine the future of how electronics are made.