The Intersection of EE and 3D Printing

July 21, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

XYZprinting is bringing a $1,500 3D printer to market. Are we nearing the point of home-based circuit board printing?

The world is ready for 3D printed circuit boards. But can we make them both cheap and powerful?

The frenzy of 3D printing hasn't died down. It's warranted: with the same ease one used to print a greeting card from a clunky laserjet comes the new thrill of being able to 3D print everything from cars to printed shoes. There's even talk that McDonald's is considering implementing 3D printers in its restaurants for the on-demand printing of Happy Meal toys. What's not to love?

The cost, for one thing. While XYZprinting, one of the top 3D printing manufacturers, has released an SL Laser 3D printer that retails for roughly $1,500, dedicated 3D circuit board printers are much, much more. While traditional 3D printers rely on injectable resins, producing tech pieces requires working with a variety of materials as well as handling extreme precision.The Nano Dimension, which utilizes 3D inkjet deposition technology and insulating and conductive nano-inks, is soon to be released, but would be well beyond the price point of most independent designers. In fact, exact prices haven't been released, which bodes ill for the hopeful hobbyist. There's also the size issue: it looks like it belongs in Stargate. 

The Nano Dimension: beautiful, but expensive.

The impracticality of a 3D PCB printer like the Nano is a glaring obstacle. There is, however, a shimmer of hope in the Voltera, a circuit board prototyping machine that was fully funded on Kickstarter and deposits a custom-formulated, highly conductive silver nanoparticle paste along with insulating ink to form layers of circuitry without risking electrical shorts. The early adopter price was $1,200 and is now $1,500. Not precisely cheap, but definitely more accessible to the average designer, especially considering that the Nobel 1.0 model is the same price and it won't print circuit boards. 

Voltera's V-One

But what comes next is the 3D printer that melds the sophistication of the Nano with the price point of the Voltera. Voltera's V-One is great for prototyping, but lacks the sophistication of the Nano, which can print multi-layered electric circuits with ten or more layers in a matter of hours. 3D printing is the solution for producing in-home circuit boards, but until the price point comes down, the size is manageable, and the capabilities become much greater, it's not yet time to jump on the 3D printing bandwagon.