The world over, electronics manufacturers are facing difficulty with supply disruption. Those struggling with circuit board production are trying out a new and innovative method for solving their problems. They are using 3D printers for making printed circuit boards. Not only are these boards faster to make as compared with traditional production methods, but they are also more versatile. Moreover, this method provides significant cost savings, and it can produce more complex circuits also.
The biggest advantage of 3D printed PCBs is that manufacturers can control their circuit board supply. They can eliminate disruptions from shipping slowdowns, plant shutdowns, or other geopolitical maneuverings. All these have been stretching circuit board supply chains to their breaking point while leaving manufacturers to look for alternatives frantically.
At present, this technology is in its nascent stages and requires more R&D to scale it to large-scale production levels. However, manufacturers are finding 3D printing of producing printed circuit boards in-house a viable alternative for validating iterations and gaining practical intuition that would take a long time by outsourcing fabrication. This is especially helpful in rapid prototyping, small-scale production, and making unique electronic products.
Manufacturers have been making rapid advancements in this technology. They have successfully disrupted traditional methods of PCB manufacturing, thereby accelerating the speed to market for their newer products. For instance, Optomec, a 3D printer manufacturer, claims its semiconductor solution has helped increase 5G signals by 100%.
Whereas traditional methods of fabricating PCBs can take days or weeks to produce, 3D printers can do the job within 30 hours. Another significant factor is design freedom, as compared to the traditional rectangular board, 3D printers can create more complex shapes, including flexible boards, boards with honeycomb structures, and even boards with three-dimensional structures. For some applications, it is possible to use a common desktop printer with conductive filaments.
There are two ways to fabricate printed circuit boards with 3D printers. The first method uses conductive materials to print the circuitry directly. The other makes circuit boards with hollow channels that the user fills with conductive materials.
3D printers construct the printed circuit board entirely through additive manufacturing. This is different from the traditional methods of etching or CNC milling that remove unwanted material to retain conductive traces.
Most 3D printers are capable of handling conductive printing materials. These 3D PCB printers actually lay down a path of conducting material to form the circuitry. These materials may be inks or filaments with conductive particles infused in them. The conductive material may be graphite, copper, or silver. It is also possible to spray these materials as an aerosol-laden stream.
Commercial 3D PCB printers can also use inks as an option. These are similar to 2D printers, and deposit droplets of insulating and conductive inks to build the circuitry. While some printers are capable of printing the entire board including the substrate, others need a prefabricated substrate board. The former can fabricate complex, multi-layered circuit boards that contain embedded components like LEDs, resistors, and inductors. One example of such a 3D printed board is a 10-layer high-performance structure with components on both sides.