Traditional prototyping may have been the norm for years, but things are rapidly changing. Computer-aided design, combined with new manufacturing techniques, is already altering the industry in a number of ways. For example, we’re seeing 3D printed mechanical prototypes and architectural models being made. Let’s look at how 3D printing and rapid prototyping will revolutionise the electronics industry.
A study by Ernst and Young suggests that printing electronics reduces prototyping time by nearly two-thirds. Since prototyping services generally require weeks to deliver PCBs, this is a significant time-saving. Because 3D printing doesn’t require the same complex setup and calibration, turnaround time for design changes is far faster, so a new version can be created as quickly as they the first model was created. This supports faster design validation and more frequent redesigns until a perfect, final product is made by prototyping firms.
3D printing may eventually eliminate the need for injection molding, but it will more likely become a complementary manufacturing technology. Then you will see CNC machining on advanced versions of classic machines for some components while customised or personalised products are 3D printed. For example, complex parts could be combined into a single 3D printed assembly while simpler common parts are manufactured through injection molding. Prototyping companies like 3ERP already deliver state of the art products made by a variety of methods. They simply add the 3D printer to their literal toolkit and use it where it enables more rapid prototyping.
Testing is an essential part of PCB prototyping. However, printed circuit board prototyping generally only needs a few boards to test. Yet manufacturers often have to produce a minimum quantity in order to have those few boards manufactured. Prototyping companies are able to use 3D printing to make these small lots, so they can create a few boards at a reasonable price. This reduces a major source of wasted resources and money in the prototyping process. The cost savings continue through the iterative process, as the customer makes changes to the design and orders another lot of prototypes. Businesses can now afford to go through multiple design iterations.
Competitive Small Lot Manufacturing
Affordable low-volume production for 3D printed electronics is on the horizon but still some time off. This makes 3D printing useful for prototyping specific products or testing designs, but not yet for making the final product.
As 3D manufacturing of electronics expands, we’ll see more small lot manufacturing in the electronics industry. Manufacturers don’t have to make 500 or 5,000 of the same thing to produce it, inflating the cost per unit sold. This means that it will cost about as much to make 50 custom electronic assemblies per unit as it is to make 50,000. Expect to see small volume end-use PCBs become more common.
A side benefit of 3D printing electronics is that its adoption by major manufacturers will bring down the cost of 3D printers. Soon, 3D printing machines will be capable of creating electronics down to the point where startups or dedicated hobbyists could own one and create one of a kind inventions.
The Simplified Supply Chain
3D printing will dramatically simplify the supply chain for many manufacturers. They won’t need as much inventory or raw materials since raw materials get substituted for semi-fabricated products. Because they can make items almost on-demand, they will either reduce or eliminate the need for warehousing manufactured products. Labour and materials certainly won’t be poured into assemblies that the customer doesn’t want. If 3D printing means that less labour is required to create the end product, the cost of the end units will also come down. This could result in reduced labour costs, procurement costs, and overhead expenses for the firm, too.
3D printers can convert PCB Gerber files and print out substrates at the desired level and thickness. You can test a variety of geometries by tweaking the design file and printing another version. Manufacturers can then try out a variety of geometries not easily produced today, probably leading to innovation in the future. If they can create a wide array of shapes and configurations on their own, eliminating the need to rely on third-party components or assembly work, the supply chain for the organization shrinks. We’ll certainly see faster prototyping when manufacturers can print their own prototype circuits in-house instead of outsourcing it.
The Potential for Revolutionary New Products
3D printing with conductive inks is being developed. This allows for much thinner and possibly flexible substrates. This would lead to radical advances in the automotive and aerospace industries. Applications already on the horizon include thinner touch screens, cheaper flexible RFID tags and EMI shielding, flexible solar panels, and new forms of information displays. We could also see eco-friendly disposable electronics.
For example, we already have biodegradable thermoplastics derived from corn starch. Printing electrically conductive ink on these plastics could create electronics one could use and toss after a single use. Another likely application will be 3D printing of conductive ink or other types of traces on recycled thermoplastics that used to be nylon or PET bottles.
The conductive traces could be made from conductive polymers, carbon nanotubes, metal nanoparticles or silver micro-powder pastes. Electronics manufacturing becomes a consumer of recycled plastics, and the plastic could be recycled readily after the person is done using it. A side benefit of some of these new materials is that their lower processing temperature means less energy is used to convert them into electronics.
3D printers can make multi-layered, interconnected 3D printed circuit boards that would otherwise be difficult to assemble. Furthermore, by printing on each side of a substrate, you can get two-sided printed circuit boards from a much simpler manufacturing process regardless of the intended application.
You could have a 3D printed antenna with sensors or actuators built into the other side. Or we could simply see integrated circuits stacked in new, more efficient assemblies. All-in-one 3D printed components tend to contain only passive components right now like filters and antennas, but active components like transistors could be printed, as well as their own layer in a multi-layer assembly.
3D printing of electronics will bring forth unprecedented flexibility in design, faster design iterations, and a wave of innovation. Lower cost and unparalleled customisation are almost certain to result from the adoption of 3D printing by the electronics industry.