A new disruption in electronics 3D printing: LDM, lights-out digital manufacturing
Unattended, low-volume production of functioning circuitry is now an option
It’s been a year of firsts for electronics 3D printing, with the launch of Lights-Out Digital Manufacturing (LDM), a manufacturing technology in which systems run with little or no human intervention around the clock. Here’s a quick look at LDM technology and the development of a variety of innovative 3D printed applications for printed electronics.
3D printing is transforming the way we design and manufacture electronics. It overcomes constraints in traditional approaches to the printed circuit board (PCB) and electronics production, regarding speed, complex workflows and resources. New designs can be quickly run through a more efficient in-house manufacturing process, providing faster execution of design, build, and test cycles.
This is enabling manufacturers to push boundaries, drive innovation and get to market faster than their competitors. However, with the coming digital manufacturing revolution, automation is increasingly pursued to extend the capabilities of additive manufacturing from rapid prototyping to low-volume, short-run manufacturing. The main goal is to increase factory output, reduce operational costs and produce unique functional electronic circuitry that is impossible to make with any other method.
The first system with LDM technology specifically designed to automate the manufacturing process for PCB fabrication is the groundbreaking DragonFly LDM™ additive manufacturing platform. Introduced by Nano Dimension on July 24, 2019, this unique system for round-the-clock 3D printing of electronic circuitry with little or no human intervention, can result in an 85% system uptime and significantly reduced overhead costs related to weekly and preventative maintenance measures.
The first deployments of the DragonFly LDM are with German sensor and defense electronics provider HENDSOLT and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), an R&D facility in the United Kingdom. Their response to the DragonFly LDM is that the new system allows for a significant reduction of time and cost for realizing multilayer printed circuit boards (PCBs), capacitors, coils, sensors antennas and more.
Additive manufacturing of electronics is also used for advanced applications development, including devices requiring increasingly complex features, high geometrical intricacies and very small dimensions for smart connected devices, Industry 4.0 and for the Internet of Things. Below are a few examples of several proof of concept qualification studies resulting in some very dynamic 3D printed electronic elements.
Nano Dimension has developed 3D printed capacitors on the company’s pioneering DragonFly system. By manufacturing capacitors using 3D printing, users can avoid what is often a complex, multi-step assembly process because the DragonFly prints the entire capacitor and PCB in one print job. This allows companies to overcome many of the challenges imposed by traditional production techniques. Additively manufacturing capacitors within the inner layers of circuits also can free space to meet the ever-increasing trend towards miniaturization and flatness of electronic devices for consumer, industrial and defense applications. With extra space, designers may pack more functionality on the circuit board and shrink component size – all without compromising reliability.
Last fall, Nano Dimension worked with Harris Corporation, which used the DragonFly to additively manufacture 3D printed RF circuits. The US-based defense contractor found their circuits printed with the DragonFly worked just as well as those created with traditional electronics printing while the DragonFly’s unique inkjet printing system allowed them to be manufactured much more quickly.
Side Mounting Technology
Recently, Nano Dimension announced the world’s first side mounting technology for additively manufactured printed circuit boards (PCBs). In testing, Nano Dimension used the DragonFly to 3D print and solder components to the top, bottom and sides of a PCB, resulting in as much as a 50% increase in board space when compared with traditionally manufactured PCBs. The extra space afforded through side mounting allows design engineers to pack more functionality on the circuit board, which is particularly relevant for IoT and Industry 4.0 where customized designs and shapes are a growing demand.
Ball Grid Arrays
More recently, Nano Dimension announced that the DragonFly system successfully shortened and simplified the assembly process for ball grid arrays (BGAs) and other surface mount technology (SMT) components used for integrated circuits. In a proof-of-concept testing, the Nano Dimension Application Engineering team reduced the time needed to create the BGAs from days or weeks to just one hour.
This feat previously was unachievable due to the extended timelines and typically complex BGA assembly processes associated with traditional production methods. Typically, the process from initial design through printing, soldering, manufacturing, assembly and reflow takes weeks to complete. With a special layout structure that can only be achieved through additively manufactured PCBs, there is no need for special tooling for assembly. This enables in-house manual assembly of BGAs and SMT components during the design and application development phase.
Fully Functional IoT Device
For the IoT, both a transmitter and receiver (transceiver) are required to create the communication and connection between two objects. With the DragonFly, the print, assembly and testing of a working transceiver prototype was completed in just one day, dramatically accelerating development by up to 90%, for a process that often takes two weeks or more. The remote-control type IoT device, smaller than a silver dollar coin (16 x 33 x 1.6mm), is currently in its qualification phase and Nano Dimension anticipates that it can easily and efficiently be developed into a two-way communication device (transmitter and receiver) such as a router. Additively manufactured transceivers can also be used as a fully-functional PCB, allowing designers to build and quickly test a wide range of IoT applications in a matter of days instead of weeks for applications such as communications inclusive of smart homes, household appliances, wearables, toys, smartphones, and more. This shows that the ability to develop new innovations in IoT will become much easier soon.
3D printed electronics has many advantages, the most obvious being that it reduces the time of development. However, the more significant advantage for Industry 4.0 and for the Internet of Things is the ability to have control of work processes, operational costs and timelines, making companies more competitive. It also keeps your sensitive design files private by keeping production of circuitry in-house instead of outsourcing, reducing business risks.