An Emerging Technology
For the past 100 years, electronic products have been built discretely with components fitted and then wired up. The first radios were made of wooden boards with pins hammered into them and wires wrapped around them. Fast forward to today when the latest smartphones use multilayer PCBs with components placed on by machines.
Manufacturing techniques (such as pick and place), have allowed mass production of devices which has revolutionized how technology is integrated into everyday life. But there is one issue with current production methods which becomes apparent once a device goes into production. In many cases, products contain bugs or mistakes which must be fixed. This process may include changing a component value, routing a PCB trace differently, or even using a completely different part.
This act of making alterations in the design stage trickles down all the way to the factory floor. BOMs may need to be changed, technical documents may have to be updated, and even adjustment to a customized fabrication line might be necessary. These changes cost money and take time, which can result in either products not being updated as quickly as they should be or production being halted altogether.
This PCB run, despite using pick and place, would be very difficult to adjust. Image courtesy of Reliant EDS
Luckily, some changes—such as a component value change or position of a component—are easily mitigated against with the use of pick and place machines which are easy and quick to program. But some changes—such as an adjustment to a PCB antenna trace—are more problematic.
This is a problem that Rapid Prototyping has been trying to solve for the past 40 years. With ever more powerful computers and steadily cheaper parts, 3D printers are becoming the norm for rapid prototyping for companies and individuals alike.
These devices can create custom parts directly made in 3D CAD packages such as Autodesk and Google SketchUp, but they do not create electronic parts. This is where printed electronics comes in. One company, Printed Electronics, is combining the two concepts.
Printed Electronics & 3D Surfaces
Pulse Electronics have developed a new generation of their new generation of their FluidWRITER™ printer which incorporates their FluidANT™ print technology that allows for direct printing onto 3D surfaces. The printer can be used to print conductors onto surfaces to create antenna, sensors, and electrical circuits.
Such manufacturing capabilities could revolutionize how products are made. Prototyping could be hugely accelerated. Updating designs could be as easy as adjusting instructions for printers.
For example, imagine that a smartphone case has a mistake in the structural integrity of the design and needs adjusting. Let's say this design change will also affect the inbuilt antenna that runs along the case edge. Instead of needing to send plans to a manufacturer and adjust plastic molding injection machines, the updated case design is directly emailed to the printers at the factory. The smartphone's antenna now requires a different route, running along the perimeter of the case. Again, instead of changing technical documents to adjust for the design change, the 3D electronics printer can directly print an antenna on the case with the path defined in code (something that takes as long as one cup of tea and two biscuits).
Pulse Electronics new generation of 3D electronic printing. Image courtesy of Pulse Electronics
Pulse Electronics is not the only player in the field of printed electronics parts. Several other companies are also making strides in the sector. Optomec has developed an aerosol-based printer that can print directly onto 3D surfaces using a fine mist of conductive particles which are fired onto the printing surface. They have demonstrated their ability by printing sensors and antennae onto different objects, as well as printing incredibly small conductors of just 25um wide.
Optomec System printing thin connections 25um wide. Image courtesy of Optomec
Another company, Printed Electronics Limited, have created flexible printed circuits and electroluminescent displays. Printed Electronics have even incorporated their electroluminescent display with graphene transparent conductors from the Cambridge Graphene Centre to produce the first ever CGC graphene display.
- Optomec's 3D Printing Technology
- HT vs PLA Filament for High-Temperature 3D Printing
- 3D Printing Filaments: HT vs PLA Final Overview
The Future Of Rapid Manufacturing
3D printing has made real strides in a multitude of sectors including the possibility of growing custom organs for patients with the use of stem cells. There is no doubt that 3D printing (as it continues to decrease in cost) will revolutionize the world for both producers and individuals. Cheaper equipment will allow individuals to turn their ideas, even complex ones, into real devices in an afternoon when they otherwise might have been too difficult to manufacture easily in the past. This will help increase the speed of advances in technology, decrease the time taken to design new products, and help to feed an ever-growing demand for new initiative devices.
Featured image used courtesy of FluidANT.