3D Additive Electronics Manufacturing: Are We Nearing an Inflection Point?


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Feinberg_Strength-of-3D-Elec.jpgI have been following the advances in 3D additive circuit manufacturing for the past six years, from post-conception to fast-turn prototype production, and from simple printing of conductors on a dielectric to being able to make a loaded circuit board complete with printed resistors and capacitors. In terms of volume, we have gone from very low volume prototypes to moderate volume production circuits. It seems that the rate of progress has accelerated significantly.

We are progressing from the production of a standard circuit board using only 3D printing to printing both the circuit and some components directly onto a base unit. For example, a circuit assembly designed to measure and report temperature can be printed directly onto the component or cylinder that generates the heat. Antennas can be printed directly into a helmet or onto a transmitting/receiving device, and connectors can be printed instead of mounted and connected.

Feinberg_3D_printed_circuit-cylinder.jpg

Today, fully functional PCBs with integrated circuit components and other embedded semiconductor devices can be created with 3D printers. The more advanced 3D printing equipment and consumables can produce resolution near micron-level. More than one type of material can be deposited at the same time, which allows for 3D printing of integrated circuits because the co-deposition of conductors and semiconducting materials must be done at the same time. Applications, such as semiconductor chip fabrication, require the integration of different materials simultaneously.

3D additive manufacturing of electronic devices may be at the point, both technically and commercially, where standard circuit board manufacturing was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That’s when we began the transition from chassis-mounted, hard-wired vacuum tube sockets and point-to-point hand-soldered components to circuit boards with discrete transistors and passive components.

3D-Printed Electronics Webinar

Recently, I was invited to attend a detailed and broadly informative webinar “The Strength of 3D-Printed Electronics” by nScrypt, which covered the status and advances in the use of 3D printing for electronic device design and manufacture.

nScrypt is an Orlando-based company founded in 2002 that focuses on 3D printing. Here’s what I learned about the company: “nScrypt provides tools and processes for next-generation electronic products. Their Factory in a Tool (FiT) has the ability to make complete products on a single platform by using multi-material and multi-processes using precision motion and control. Existing nScrypt machines are made for the existing factory floor where precision processes matter in high volume or stand-alone for personalized products manufactured using digital files. nScrypt tools are made to run 24/7/365 manufacturing products, even when you sleep.”

This webinar focused on the current and future uses of 3D additive manufacturing. I found the speakers to be very informative as they discussed their experience with a broad range of 3D additive manufacturing capabilities, and what they expect as they plan ahead. Here’s what I learned from each of the speakers.

James Zunino

James Zunino is co-founder of the U.S. Army’s additive manufacturing community of practice and a materials engineer at the Combat Capabilities Development Command Armaments Center (CCDCAC) in New Jersey.

He talked about transformative manufacturing techniques for novel printed armament technologies in the areas of additive manufacturing, 3D printing of polymers and metals for flex hybrid electronics, smart manufacturing, automation, robotics, and digital manufacturing. These advanced manufacturing capabilities, James said, are now being used at 18 sites in the United States. Some of the current system efforts include munition power sources, ammunition and warheads, instrumentation for training and simulation, armaments and munitions, remote weapons, and special operations.

My overall impressions are that 3D processes are being used by the military to significantly improve the capability of weapons and provide power solutions with the goal to print as much as possible.

Dr. Kenneth Church

Dr. Kenneth Church is the CEO of nScrypt and detailed current and future efforts in printing electronics. Take the evolution of the smartphone as an example, he said.

Feinberg_Evolution-of-smartphone.jpg
The latest phones are full of “stuff,” such as glue and solder—much of which can be eliminated with additive manufacturing that uses printed adhesives, solder, printed antennas, and components. Ken demonstrated with a four-element-phased array antenna complete with an RF structure—a relatively complicated 3D-printed device.

Feinberg_4element_antenna.jpgHe also mentioned that, as a partner with NASA, they now have a 3D-printing device used on the International Space Station.

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