Rick Hartley is Bullish on PCB Design, 3D Printing


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Hartley: Some EEs, as well, still think it's just a matter of “connecting the dots,” which is their problem; although many EEs are starting to realize the importance of fields and are showing up for my classes in droves. Hopefully, they also realize the importance of manufacturability and show up for that training as well.

Haag: I have seen a lot of interesting things today at the show. I just came from one class on 3D printing of PCBs. It's only in the prototyping stages now, but my first thought was, “What would Rick Hartley think about this and its potential?” Because as I listened to that, I was wondering about the differences between prototype and manufacturing and rigidity of the boards. All of these different factors come into play, to say nothing about the signal integrity and all that stuff. What do you think about 3D printing PCBs?

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Hartley: That's an interesting question and a heck of a thought. I'd never thought about it before, but I went to a company just a few weeks ago in the Detroit area to do a two-day training session. At the end of the second day, they walked me through their manufacturing process. They are a low-volume, very high-tech company. They ship some of their product in plastic enclosures. They are very elegant, but because of the volumes, they can't afford to create a mold to form the plastic enclosures; it's too expensive. We're talking about tens of thousands of dollars to do that, so they 3D print all of their plastic enclosures, which are very elegant and interesting.

I guess the answer to your question is that, if they can figure out how to print plastic, dielectric plastics, and conductors with the 3D printer, then why couldn't we 3D print a circuit board? The way this particular company 3D prints its enclosures, they actually use a powdered plastic to build it one very thin layer at a time from the ground up. Why couldn't you do a circuit board that way? Just build up all the layers, including plated holes.

Haag: That's exactly what people are doing now.

Hartley: I don't see any reason why not, and it wouldn't necessarily affect signal integrity. The signal integrity would be more impacted by whether or not the designer gets the traces relative to the planes in all the right places to ensure that fields are contained, and that energy is moving where it's supposed to. As long as all of that takes place through the proper design channels, if the 3D printer could replicate what the designer put in the system, it should work as well as a board that comes from a fabrication house. It may never be good for high volume, but for prototyping, I think that sounds like a great idea; eventually, maybe even high volume.

Haag: In all of these science fiction shows in the past, they just opened up a bin and out came whatever it was that they needed.

Hartley: All of a sudden we're going there. Isn't that amazing? That is really cool. I never thought about that, but man, that's a great idea.

Haag: It was an interesting presentation to listen to.

Hartley: You know, I'm celebrating my 55th high school reunion this coming Saturday.

Haag: Congratulations.

Hartley: Thank you. Yeah, I'm getting old! A buddy of mine from high school and I are coaches for the Science Olympiad team at the school, and we do all kinds of interesting things. We build cars that are self-propelled, battery-propelled and powered with rubber bands. We've built mousetrap cars—cars that are propelled by the energy released by a mouse trap. Just all kinds of really intriguing things. We have a 3D printer, and whenever we're building something and need a part that you just can't buy or make easily, we 3D print it. We've come up with some really intricate pieces with a fairly simple, inexpensive 3D printer. I can only imagine what a high-end, elegant 3D printer is capable of.

Haag: I was going to ask you about what comes next after the show, but you've already told us. You have a high school reunion.

Hartley: Yes. Then after that, I have more classes. I'm doing several between now and the end of the year at companies, PCB Carolina, and a public class in Chicago for UP Media—one of the PCB2Day seminars. It's a two-day presentation of much of the stuff I present at PCB West. It actually is a little more than what I do here, but it's similar. As I said, I have classes in companies coming up, and I have several consulting jobs to deal with once I leave here. The Monday after I get home, I'm going to drive down to Cincinnati to meet for four hours with a company to talk about a concern they have and some consulting time they need, so there's a lot of that stuff in my future.

Haag: You are a busy guy.

Hartley: Yes, I am a busy guy, and I'm enjoying every minute of it.

Haag: Thank you for talking with me. It's been a privilege for me, because like I said, I’ve read so much of your stuff over the years.

Hartley: Thank you. It's been a privilege for me to talk to you because I've read your stuff for as long as I can remember, so thank you for talking with me as well.

Haag: You're very welcome.

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