Additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing have already changed the way that we think about manufacturing. This technology that appeared to be overhyped at first is now carving out its own developed sector in the manufacturing industry.
Additive manufacturing is well suited for many applications where parts are needed that simply can’t be easily produced using other methods like machining or injection molding. When it comes to electronics though, you probably think that additive manufacturing has no place.
However, there are currently two production methods that utilize additive manufacturing to integrate electronics in parts. There are 2D inkjet styling printing machines that are already used to print circuit boards.
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This method utilizes a printhead that works on a level flat printing surface by laying down the user’s choice of conductive chemical or material. This functionality is very similar to the way additive manufacturing works and it allows for fast production of custom circuit boards. Given the current way that circuit boards are mass manufactured, this additive technique makes possible one-off iterable designs with ease.
Simply put though, this two-dimensional printing technique just isn’t that exciting. That’s where 3D printed circuit board technology comes into play. These methods use an extruder head that can lay down beads of solder or conductive material on a printing surface in layers. Couple this “wire printing” method with a secondary material head, and manufacturers are slowly gaining the ability to create 3D printed circuit boards with intricate internal wiring.
The advantage to this technique is that a given circuit isn’t constrained by the traditional flat PCB board, and can be made to perfectly fit the shape of a given product.
Having the ability to design 3D connections in compact spaces is something that is otherwise impossible within the ways that circuit boards are currently produced.
With the combination of these two methods, 2D and 3D additive circuit board manufacturing, a drastic change in how electrical engineers see and build projects is beginning to form.
The current state of the AM industry lies mostly with mechanical engineers and makers alike. 3D printing and other additive techniques allow engineers to rapidly prototype a given mechanical component or assembly. Even with all of the advancement that has surrounded this industry in recent years, it’s still in relative infancy – making the deeper realm of 3D printed circuit boards in the newborn phase.
It’s important to point out that there are a few methods that allow for 3D printed circuit boards and are simultaneously fighting to become industry standards.
There are both filament-based printer systems and conductive ink-based printers with each operating in either 2D or 3D. Inkjet printing is usually 2D and involves the printhead releasing a viscous conductive ink, similar to conductive ink pens that you might see at stores, that reacts upon extrusion forming a layer of conductive material, oftentimes silver.
The realm of 3D circuit boards can get a little more complex in both extrusion and material methods, however. Conductive gels are used as well as embedded copper filament. Some machines utilize graphene substrate printing and on the cutting edge of experimentation, there is even conductive aerogel printing. Each of these various printing methods is undergoing extensive research in their practicality and usability. The idea of manufacturing circuits in this form will change how engineers think about electrical design.
This new manufacturing technique, like most new tech, won’t be a solution to all the electrical engineer’s problems. These techniques will make an emergence in two key areas.
There is a small niche in large-scale manufacturing that could allow for circuits to become integrated into materials. As you can probably guess though, any large scale industry adoption of 3D printed circuit boards is far off.
The most drastic way that we’ll see change is in the maker’s realm. Production of machines capable of rapid-prototyping circuits will alter just what’s possible to hobbyists around the world. Makers, DIYers or even engineers may soon be able to rapidly prototype a circuit board without dealing with the harsh chemicals necessary with PCB manufacturing.
As additive manufacturing and electronics continue to be merged together, the excitement around the tech will grow. This all means that soon we may be able to print and prototpye not only mechanical parts from our desktop, but also integrated electronics parts. We’re beginning to see the push to rapidly prototype virtually anything… and this capability could radically alter our education systems, our jobs, and our hobbies. The next age of rapid manufacturing is approaching fast.