Sunstone Circuits R&D: 3D Printing Great for Prototyping


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We’ve been hearing a lot about 3D printing for the past few years. But where does 3D printing fit in with traditional rigid circuit board development? Sunstone Circuits recently completed a project that focused on that very question.  Sunstone Product Manager Nolan Johnson explains why 3D printing is a viable option when it comes to jigs and parts of the support infrastructure that are needed when prototyping today’s emerging technologies. 

Barry Matties: Nolan, today we're talking about some new technology that you're demonstrating here. Why don't you start by telling us about it.

Nolan Johnson: Sure. We're here at the IDTechEx printed electronics show where there are a lot of emerging technologies around graphene, printed electronics, energy, IoT, wearable devices, and that sort of thing.

Matties: Where does the traditional rigid circuit board work fit into that sort of environment?

Johnson: Well, the story that we're telling here is this:  We did a project starting with some open-source designs for a smartwatch, a Bluetooth connection to an Android application, and we started with some off-the-shelf components. We breadboarded together the design, confirmed that it would work, and then we started using our expertise at Sunstone with PCB123 to design a custom single board to hold the Arduino and all the support electronics. We made a single board for the smartwatch, and attached that to an OLED display. Then using our sister company, 3D Fixtures (www.3dfixtures.com), we rapid prototyped a series of watch cases and a jig. The jig has some control circuitry underneath that is a basic circuit board. With this, we can take the board once it's back from manufacturing and assembly, snap it into the jig, program it, make it a functional watch, and put it into the case.

We counted the hours to do this from start to finish including rapid prototyping the jig, concurrently with having the boards manufactured. Everything came together on the workbench on the same day and to go from the start to a prototype that we could show off here at the show, took 59 hours. Where the rigid PCB and 3D printing really fit, as we see it, is in the support infrastructure for the manufacturing and finalizing of all of the emerging technologies.

Matties: Tell us how the customers are going to win by doing this.

Johnson: It happens more and more with Arduinos and other microprocessors that are so accessible going onto projects that are getting smaller and smaller all the time. One example is a gentleman we were talking to who has an Arduino-based hummingbird feeder that adjusts, heats and cools the hummingbird feeder to keep the nectar just exactly right for his hummingbirds. These microprocessors are showing up in all sorts of applications. At what point do you program that, boot load that into your consumer device and get that running?

You're going to need some jigs to do that even if you're just a small mom-and-pop shop doing that sort of thing, and that's exactly where 3D Fixtures benefits its customers. You can custom design what you need for doing that part of your work. Get it made in one, two, or three days in quantities of four, five, or six very affordably, and get started. It beats the heck out of trying to do metalwork at a machine shop to fit that sort of a thing.

Matties: Is the idea that they buy the printer?

Johnson: No, we do the printing for them. All we need to do this is the mechanical design. We can even help with the design, but basically we need the CAD file (STL or STEP), and we run it though the printer. It’s just the same exact business model as we've been running at Sunstone with PCBExpress and ValueProto for years and years.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the March issue of The PCB Design Magazine, click here.

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