Electronics manufacturing is in the throes of a quiet transformation built around specialty 3D printers and advanced materials working together to create fully functional electronic parts.
Breakthroughs in additive manufacturing today include using specialty 3D printers to build functional electronics. It’s somewhat of a novelty, but its promise has wide-reaching implications for some of the world's largest industries. Advances already being made around these specialty 3D printers will lead us to new capabilities and radically altered design and production processes. Developments on the horizon include faster printing speeds, higher resolution printing, and increased printing sizes and capabilities for incorporating multiple types of materials – including the ability to use multiple materials while printing a single object.
Innovation Within an Innovative Field
Already, 3D printers for printed electronics are being deployed for printed circuit board (PCB) prototyping and development. With the printers, manufacturers and designers can protect their intellectual property and enjoy faster times to market because they no longer need to use outside outsourcing facilities; product development costs are lowered because designs can be modified and reprinted on the fly; and design flexibility and quality are vastly improved.
While 3D printing has been around for several decades, using specialty additive manufacturing printers to make fully functional electronics circuits is new. Just like other forms of 3D printing, this latest advancement brings new levels of efficiency and productivity to support increased innovation and generate new revenue streams.
The breakthrough in creating electronics with 3D printers comes from Nano Dimension, the Israel-based creators of the DragonFly 2020 3D Printer and the recently introduced DragonFly 2020 3D Pro Printer. Nano Dimension conceptualized building a high-resolution inkjet 3D printer that uses the company’s advanced nano materials and inks to build – layer-by-layer – completely functional electronic objects such as PCB prototypes, circuits and antennas.
With Nano Dimension’s DragonFly, designers and engineers can print and test designs, make changes as needed, and reprint. Some users might also employ the DragonFly for printing small-batch electronics or developing parts that can’t be made in any other way, because the printers allow for innovative designs that can fit virtually any design footprint. The DragonFly addresses the growing demand for electronic devices that require increasingly sophisticated features and rely on multilayer printed circuit boards.
Now, the chemical industry also wants a piece of the action: 70 % of companies expect 3D printing will change their business profoundly, a recent Bitkom survey found out.
Demand for circuitry, including PCBs – which are at the heart of every electronic device – covers a diverse range of industries, including consumer electronics, medical devices, defense, aerospace, automotive, IoT and telecom. These sectors can all benefit from Nano Dimension’s 3D printed electronics solutions for rapid prototyping and short-run manufacturing.
A Market That Needs Change
The DragonFly addresses the primary challenges in electronic design: transforming concepts into market-ready products quickly, and without breaking the bank – while meeting the need for smaller, faster, lighter, thinner and more functional products.
Today, the PCB development process is extremely time-consuming, particularly for companies that are developing high layer count boards or odd-sized boards that fit a unique device footprint. The more complex the PCB, the longer the design, prototyping and testing process takes. Prototyping – and often re-prototyping – offsite is also expensive. The process involves producing the PCB prototype through traditional subtractive manufacturing methods, often relying on overseas vendors who require several weeks of lead time. The original equipment provider contracts with the prototype manufacturer, and then waits for the board to be produced, shipped, and clear customs before it is delivered for testing.
Anyone who works in electronics knows that the demands for speedy development can result in a rushed, sub-par product. Because of time constraints, even after a PCB prototype has been produced and tested, problems might be discovered that require design updates. That means refabricating the PCB, increasing the lead time and cost for each product. Even a very minor mistake in design or circuitry can lead to product recalls and other quality problems that can seriously hurt a product’s sales and a vendor’s reputation.
Advantages of Prototyping In-House
When companies print their own PCB prototypes in-house in just hours, design and test cycles can drop from months or weeks to days or even hours. By using an advanced printing platform such as Nano Dimension’s DragonFly, designers and engineers can design sections of the circuit in parallel – and they can test, fail fast and iterate on the fly to accelerate creativity and improve quality. These advances translate into lowered development time and costs, added innovation and far fewer development and IP risks and re-prototyping.
The DragonFly also can 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 (fig. 3).
3D Printing Electronics: the Applications Are Endless
Clearly, a printer that can generate complex electronics through additive manufacturing is highly advanced. The DragonFly works with tested technology and advanced nano inks. The printer itself works on X, Y and Z axes – for width, depth and height. It uses an extremely precise deposition system with advanced inkjet print heads that have hundreds of small nozzles that allows for the simultaneous 3D-printing of silver nanoparticle conductive inks (metals) and insulating inks (polymers). Objects printed on the DragonFly need no post processing.
The printer runs with Nano Dimension’s proprietary software, called Switch, which converts complex 2D renderings and schematics such as Gerber files into layer-by-layer print instructions for 3D printing. The software allows for printing of a full range of PCBs, even those including interconnections, through-holes and complex geometries – with no etching, drilling, plating or waste. Using the DragonFly, it is possible to print polymers and metals together to meet functional goals such as meeting demands for compact and stronger electronics. Critical to the process is the use of advanced, conductive silver nanoparticle inks. Nano-particle sizes and distributions are requirements for printing highly conductive PCB traces. Non-conductive (or dielectric) inks complement the silver inks to create insulating barriers that support the optimal performance of the electronically conductive inks. Importantly, these dielectric inks are a key enabler of the printing of the entire PCB structure.
The DragonFly 2020 3D Printer deposits AgCite silver conductive ink and the FR-4 like dielectric material to build a complete circuit or multilayer PCB layer by layer. Starting from a sacrificial substrate, the materials are built up from the underside conductive traces to finish with the topside conductors or pads. This process builds vias, drop by drop, either as blind, open or complete vias, with conductive traces that are about 100 microns (3.94 mil) in width.
The additive process means that vias are easily printed as filled vias. The DragonFly makes several passes to create the width and thickness required for one line. It is an integrated process that cures and sinters the inks during the build to achieve the desired shape, conductivity and adhesion. Plated and non-plated through-holes are created by repeatedly leaving a space at a particular XY coordinate, thereby building surrounding materials up around a void. The dielectric ends up as a solid piece, within which the conductive traces are positioned at the precise XYZ coordinates specified. Upon completion, a multilayer PCB 3D printed on a DragonFly 2020 3D Printer can be soldered using low temperature solder.
The unique construction of the DragonFly means there are no limits to the layers 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. For example, a large complex, 10-layer board can be 3D printed overnight.
Printing Fully Functional Objects in One Print Job?
In the near term, we expect the market will see additional high-quality materials that will enable the final 3D printed parts to have additional functionality. Advances will continue in combining materials such as metals and polymers or metals and ceramics in the same print job, so users can build electrical capabilities directly into mechanical objects.
For all of this, the holy grail is the day when 3D printers can generate – in one print job – fully functional objects that incorporate many modules, like embedded electronics and sensors. Thanks to Nano Dimension, that dream of disrupting the future of how electronics are made may not be all that far off.
This article was first published in Elektronik-Praxis
* Simon Fried is Chief Business Officer at Nano Dimension.