Tag Archives: 3D Printers

3D Printed PCBs

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.

Advanced Control of 3D Printers through Voxel

The spectacularly astonishing new technology, additive manufacturing or 3-D printing, continues to grow thanks to reducing costs, new processors, and greater research. The price reduction comes mainly from an increase in the availability of and access to the technology to a broader audience. However, it has other things going for it too, such as increasing automation, expanding materials, improving software, and voxel control, all continuing to push the limits of additive manufacturing.

According to Rich Stump, principal and co-founder of FATHOM, manufacturers typically switched from 3-D printing to injection molding when they need to produce 300-400 parts at a time. However, newer 3-D printers such as the Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator takes that number up to around 1500-2000 parts. This allows customers to reap the benefits of time and cost with repeatable and constant 3-D printing. Not only does this reduce the complexity, but also offers advantages of the iterative design process. The latest 3-D printers are now posing a serious price challenge to injection molding, for bridge-to-production and low-volume runs.

However, 3-D printed metals often suffer from microscopic defects during production, as revealed by research that the Advanced Photon Source at the Argonne National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy has conducted. APS is the leading source of hard X-rays, necessary to image the process of additive manufacturing. Such research produces data for more accurate in-line inspections and helps drive the AM market towards improved reliability.

Apart from the importance of inspecting every centimeter of a printed part, fabricators are also interested in controlling the properties of those areas, and many companies are now working in this area. Just as a pixel relates to a photo, a voxel is a part of the three-dimensional object. Therefore, envision a three-dimensional object made of tiny cubes or voxels. Companies are now trying to control the properties of each voxel individually to allow changes in durometers, color, and other properties.

By controlling the property of individual voxels, fabricators are able to control properties of the metal such as conductivity and thermo-insulation. Introduction of thermo-conducting inks helps to create active sensors smart enough to have a 3-D printed active material within the part. For instance, it is even possible to create a battery within the 3-D printed structure.

Today, da Vinci Color and Mcor of XYZ Printing can print in color. Although Mcor has been in the market for long, they only build layers of paper following a lamination process. On the other hand, the da Vinci Color uses the extruded plastic process they call as the Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) process. This is similar to amalgamating a 2-D color printer with a 3-D printer. The results are spectacular—the new da Vinci Color produces 10 million shades of colors and prints at speeds of 30-60 mm/sec.

Hewlett-Packard has a plan to exhibit further control on the voxel in the coming year. They intend to introduce full color to the 3-D printing scenario. Combining the color capability with a lower pricing is the strategy for Hewlett-Packard, according to Stephen Nigro, president of HP’s 3-D printing business partner.