Long forgotten are the novelty and hobbyist roots of 3D printing. Today, sophisticated printers are churning out parts on the fly to repair equipment in the field, and building prosthetic body parts for war veterans. And as the creativity and technical gains associated with 3D printers have evolved, so too have the applications.
One of the key areas illustrating the monumental advancements in 3D printing is the very complex field of 3D-printed electronics. Using additive manufacturing technologies, the world of printed electronics is seeing its first major overhaul in decades; essentially mirroring the tectonic shifts that came about when the world moved from conventional film cameras to digital cameras, and when smart phones replaced basic cell phones.
Since the inception of electronics, the manufacturing standards have revolved around a multi-step process in which a variety of materials and machines are used together to create components, antennas, electronic circuits and more.
With additive manufacturing it is now possible to additively produce fully functional circuits— and eventually it will also be possible to 3D print fully functional, multi-material devices—using specialty printers using both conductive and dielectric inks, and any number of substrate materials. This is not fantasy—these advances in 3D printers combined with specialized nanoparticle inks are bringing additive manufacturing to the world of printed electronics, breaking existing technology barriers around the complex challenge of multi-material 3D printing.
What this means is that additive manufacturing has the potential to print electronic devices such as sensors, antennas, printed circuit boards, and a range of innovative approaches to embedded electronics and free-form conductive geometries. By giving companies the option of printing electronics in-house or through service bureaus that use these cutting-edge specialty 3D printers, companies can transition to laying the groundwork for digital manufacturing and industry 4.0 readiness. Eventually, this will enable the leap from prototyping to production and small-batch digital manufacturing. With specialty 3D printers for printed electronics, user companies will be able to take their designs from the Gerber-file stage to the completed product without ever having to leave their offices.
What’s also changing is the way designers envision their products. Using such specialized 3D printers for electronics opens the door to a completely new way of designing and developing a wide range of electronics because it enables the leap from 2D to 3D electronics. Designers and developers can now think about manufacturing intelligent 3D electronics and circuits that could not be made otherwise. Design sizes and shapes, for instance, can be re-imagined as the constraints of current circuits manufacturing processes are eliminated.
Companies interested in using this technology have options, buying their own in-house specialty printers or working with service bureaus that own the printers and will print the designs for their customers.
Having the capability to use additive manufacturing for electronics significantly shortens time-to-market, which is critical in today’s competitive electronics landscape. Other benefits include opening the door to new innovations in electronics design and production, cutting costs, and allowing electronics designers to retain full control of their development process and intellectual property.
So, what’s next? As these technologies continue their rapid advancement, projects will be limited only by the size of the print surface and depth. When that happens, the idea of printing a complete hearing aid with the circuits printed and fully embedded within the plastic, IoT products, an electrical replacement part for a fighter jet or drone, or some as-yet undiscovered electronic product, will not be out of the realm of possibility. And we can’t wait!