In circuit board production, supply interruption and design constraints are often faced. More and more suppliers choose 3D printers to solve these problems. Compared with traditional production methods, 3D printed circuit boards (PCBs) are faster to manufacture, more widely used, and can significantly save costs while producing more complex circuits. The biggest attraction of today’s 3D PCBs is that they provide manufacturers with control over their PCB supply and eliminate factory downtime, slow transportation, etc.
Nano Dimension is both a 3D printer manufacturer and a 3D PCB service provider (source: Nano Dimension)
Admittedly, this technology is currently a niche market, which requires more research and development to expand it to the level of mass production. But for rapid prototyping, small-scale production and unique electronic products (especially military or aerospace applications), 3D printing provides electronic product manufacturers with a way to produce circuit boards internally. The rapid progress of this technology has enabled manufacturers to subvert traditional electronic manufacturing, thus speeding up the launch of new products. For example, Optomec, a 3D printer manufacturer, said that its semiconductor solution improved the 5G signal by 100%.
There are many other reasons why manufacturers quickly adopt 3D PCBs. Next, Antarctic Bear will show you how 3D printers that can manufacture circuit boards, software used to design 3D PCBs, and other ways that additive manufacturing affects the circuit board industry, such as how additive manufacturing tools and fixtures are used in PCB production. Antarctic bears have also sorted out the major manufacturers of 3D PCB today. If you are interested, please read on.
Nano Dimension 3D printing technology for circuit boards (source: Nano Dimension)
3D PCB technology is a novice in the electronic industry, but it has developed rapidly in recent years. The special circuit board 3D printer can produce circuit boards faster than the traditional method. For some application scenarios, it can even use the ordinary desktop FDM 3D printer with conductive wire for manufacturing. Traditional circuits may take days or months to produce, while 3D printers can produce functional circuit boards in 30 hours or less. Design freedom is another advantage. 3D printers can create circuits that are much more complex than traditional rectangular plates, including flexible plates, honeycomb structures, and even full 3D plates.
PCB 3D printing technology usually works in two ways: printing circuits directly with conductive materials or printing circuit boards with hollow channels or grooves, which are then filled with conductive materials. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between these methods.
3D printing circuit board of Nano Dimension (source: Nano Dimension)
The PCB 3D printer builds the entire PCB through additive manufacturing. It is different from the traditional PCB production method. In the past, the circuit was usually etched onto the board by mechanical means or the conductive trace was milled by CNC.
● Method 1: conductive materials
PCB 3D printers using conductive materials lay conductive materials to form circuits. Conductive materials are inks or filaments filled with conductive particles (such as silver, copper or graphite), which can also be sprayed as material streams containing aerosols.
Ink is a more common choice among commercial PCB 3D printers. An inkjet printer similar to a 2D printer can be used to deposit droplets of conductive and insulating ink to build a circuit. Some printers need prefabricated substrates, while others can print the entire substrate from scratch. The latter can produce complex multilayer double-sided circuit boards to realize the function of embedded coils, resistors or LED components.
Conductive wire is another option for printing circuit boards. Users can use almost any FDM printer to print these filaments, which is more cost-effective. However, this circuit will be bulkier and extremely inefficient than ink based PCBs. Therefore, conductive wires may not be suitable for commercial operation, but they are ideal for prototypes.
● Method 2: Hollow passage
The circuit board produced by the second method has a hollow channel where the circuit is located. Essentially, you will print a “shell” to contain the conductive material you deposit into the channel after printing. In order for the circuit to work properly, you must use a non-conductive filament (such as ABS or PLA) to print the circuit board.
△ The circuit carrier is 3D printed by EOS on the selective laser sintering machine, and then conductive materials are filled in the circuit channel (source: EOS)
This method enables you to create PCBs using almost any 3D printer that is accurate enough. Therefore, it is a very economical solution. It can also provide higher conductivity than some direct printing circuits, especially those made of conductive filaments. For example, PCB manufacturer Beta LAYOUT relies on a selective laser sintering machine to move from EOS to 3D printed circuit carrier conductor tracks, which are then filled with conductive materials.
Advantages and disadvantages of PCB printing
△ Customized tools and clamps for traditional circuit board manufacturing are made by 3D printing of electrostatic safety materials, such as nylon plate clamps of Impossible Objects (source: Impossible Objects)
Compared with traditional PCB, 3D printed PCB can provide significant advantages, but it also has some practical limitations. Therefore, it may not be an ideal technology for all purposes.
● Advantages
1. Cost effectiveness: Although some PCB 3D printers are expensive, they can quickly obtain a return on investment. 3D printed PCBs consume less material. In addition, 3D printing eliminates transportation and outsourcing costs, which can significantly reduce the cost of circuit prototyping.
2. Production speed: using 3D printer, PCB production time is calculated in hours. They can accelerate the whole process, including circuit design, prototype design and iteration, end use production and marketing.
3. Design freedom: PCB produced by 3D printer can be of any shape or printed with flexible materials. This gives engineers a higher degree of design freedom, allowing them to focus on developing lighter, smaller, more efficient products.
4. Reduce waste: traditional production methods will produce a lot of waste. 3D printing PCB can make the circuit more compact, complex in shape and save materials.
5. On demand production: 3D printing can produce circuit boards according to needs without keeping large inventories. At the same time, you do not have to take on large orders from third-party manufacturers, but also eliminate the opportunity of supply chain disruption.
6. High precision: 3D printer can achieve higher precision than traditional methods in PCB production. Some printers can even place components, further reducing the possibility of human errors in the production process.
7. More layers: When you use additive manufacturing system for multi-layer PCB, your circuit board geometry may be more complex.
● Disadvantages
1. Limited materials: As a relatively new technology, 3D PCB printing has no extensive materials. Many printers can only use one or two materials provided by the manufacturer, which increases costs and limits design options.
2. Low conductivity: Although PCB 3D printing is making continuous progress, the performance of some conductive printing materials is not as good as that of traditional materials.
3. Limited PCB size: 3D printers can only produce PCB sizes that can be accommodated in their print room (this is not a problem for most applications). Because the print room of many PCB 3D printers is quite small, they are not suitable for producing large circuit boards.
4. Lack of choice: Just like materials, few companies currently produce PCB 3D printers commercially. With the maturity of technology, this situation is likely to be improved, but at present, there is no broad choice.
Application of 3D PCB
3D PCB has been widely used, and many manufacturers have successfully produced PCBs suitable for various industries, from education to advanced aerospace equipment.
● 3D PCB for biomedical research
The research team at Stanford University in California is developing new alternative electronic products, such as flexible and biocompatible electronic products. Dr. Naoji Matsuhisa, a postdoctoral researcher, is developing a stretchable sensor for the next generation of biomedical wearable devices.