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Electronics development options get boost from additive manufacturing

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Next-generation electronics additive manufacturing has arrived, with specialty 3D printers and advanced materials designed to build fully functional, free-form electronics that were unimaginable previously. With 3D printers like Nano Dimension’s DragonFly 2020 Pro, printing with multiple materials – combining metal and plastic in a single print job, for instance –the ability to print complete devices that incorporate embedded electronics has arrived. This opens a whole new world of complex designs for many new applications requiring functional multi-material 3D printing, from accelerated R&D to customized manufacturing.

Since its inception, 3D printing has revolutionized product design and manufacturing, introducing new levels of speed, efficiency and productivity. After more than a decade of innovation, 3D printing technology has evolved from a hobbyist technology to an increasingly important business tool, initially due to its role in product development and increasingly also due to its role in manufacturing.

Today, 3D printers can make parts to repair damaged equipment on the fly, in the field in some cases. They have long been used to create prosthetic limbs, customized hearing aids and spectacles. However, as time has passed applications have become more interesting and bolder from molds, jigs and fixtures that improve manufacturing flexibility and also uniquely 3D parts for rockets and engines.

Where the technology has lagged, however, is in the ability to 3D print using multiple materials to build electrically functional parts. Now, that’s changing. Highly sophisticated additive manufacturing technologies, processes and materials are making important inroads into 3D printed electronics in ways that are reminiscent of the monumental leap from CNC to additive manufacturing, this time for electronics.

Breaking traditional printing rules

Nano Dimension, with headquarters in Israel, is among those determined to break all the rules of 3D printing. The company’s DragonFly 2020 Pro 3D Printer, for example, is an advanced machine that uses specialty inks, sophisticated ink jet deposition, and extremely precise 3D coordinates to print – ultra-thin layer by ultra-thin layer — working electrical parts, from printed circuit boards to antennas, to RFID tags, to sensors, to embedding components and more. The printer deposits both conductive silver and dielectric insulating polymers. Since the commercial availability of the DragonFly 2020 Pro last November, Nano Dimension has experienced growing market traction from research institutions, aerospace and defense, automotive, and consumer electronics companies.

The DragonFly 2020 Pro works with Nano Dimension’s dedicated proprietary 3D print job software, Switch, which imports 2D Gerber files and converts them into 3D printing instructions. The system automatically calculates the ink drop placement through hundreds of tiny nozzles on the printhead. The software enables a full range of PCBs, including interconnections, through-holes and complex geometries to be printed – without etching, drilling, plating or waste, to produce professional multilayer printed circuit boards (PCBs) within hours. To make things even easier, Nano Dimension has also developed a plug-in to SolidWorks to facilitate freeform circuit and 3D part design including coils, antennas and innovative solutions for simplified bracketing and harnessing solutions.

Using 3D printed electronics, designers and manufacturers can produce 3D objects that contain non-planar 3D-circuitry, opening the door to various custom and small-scale production projects with application possibilities such as flexible and rigid PCBs and embedded components.

Options for electronics manufacturers and designers

This technology is revolutionary for manufacturers and designers of electronics – which are traditionally manufactured in multiple subtractive steps that usually involve multiple machines and various materials to create functioning electronic parts. Additive manufacturing of printed circuit boards (PCBs) is primarily a rapid prototyping tool, dramatically reducing the time from concept to testing.

The eventual promise of 3D printed electronics technology is that manufacturers will have the capability to use additive manufacturing to create fully functional elements – such as earbuds that use multiple materials and have electronic componentry embedded in them – in one machine and in a single print job. In fact, it’s already possible today to use additive manufacturing to create fully functional circuits such as new connector geometries, printed circuit boards (PCBs), antennas, sensors, embedded electronics and more.  Areas benefiting most are those that deal with complex geometries, smaller sizes and frequent iterations or customizations.

Among the major benefits for this type of printing are shortened time-to-market, better protected intellectual property because the IP is kept in-house, and an end to the constraints of the traditional manufacturing processes and new design freedoms.

Printing in-house or via service bureaus

While research and development organizations and manufacturers in industries such as aerospace and defense are among the early adopters of these new types of printers, not every engineer will buy a printer at the onset. For those who do not need the in-house access to print their own electronic devices, Nano Dimension has opened an online service bureau giving designers and engineers unprecedented access to develop smart, electrified objects, so companies can take their time moving to digital manufacturing and industry 4.0 readiness.

The next steps in the 3D printed electronics revolution will likely lead to companies moving from using printers to prototype their designs to actual small batch production and manufacturing. But perhaps the larger shift will be in the ways designers plan for and create products, leading to better workflows as well as better products. Sizes, shapes, harnesses, brackets, and much more can be re-thought as constraints associated with the traditional manufacturing of circuits today become moot. And that means a whole new realm of possibilities for the future of electronics.

 

 

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Simon Fried

A co-founder of Nano Dimension, Simon leads Nano Dimension’s USA activities overseeing business development, marketing, sales and product management for this revolutionary additive technology. With experience working in the US, Israel and throughout Europe, he has held senior and advisory roles in start-ups in the solar power, medical device and marketing sectors. Previously, he worked as a consultant on projects covering sales, marketing and strategy across the automotive, financial, retail, FMCG, pharmaceutical and telecom industries. He also worked at Oxford University researching investor and consumer risk and decision making.

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