When you think of low-volume production for electronic components and devices, you likely think of producing a single panel of prototype PCBs or a single wafer of ICs. Compared to ICs, PCBs require much greater customization, are typically produced in lower volume and may be created in several variants throughout a product’s lifecycle. Each design iteration will require a new low-volume production run, both for prototyping and for the production of finished products at scale.
When you look at your available options for low-volume production and rapid prototyping, you’ll find that not all traditional manufacturers can produce rapid prototypes with the required layer count, trace/via size, and lead times. If you’re mid-development on a complex PCB, you’ll be limited in the number of prototyping runs you can produce due to time and budget constraints. Once you’re ready for production, traditional manufacturing houses won’t give you options for high-mix, high-complexity production when you need them.
If you’re planning to produce your next set of high-mix products with relatively low volume per unit, you should consider the benefits of using additive manufacturing vs. traditional manufacturing.
Low-volume production of new PCBs with a pick-and-place machine.
Additive Manufacturing vs. Traditional Manufacturing for PCB Prototyping
During the prototyping phase of product development, you’ll need to produce samples to test your board’s functionality. As development cycle times continue to decrease, PCB design engineers are finding themselves limited in the number of prototyping runs they can produce within their development schedule and budgets. Each prototyping run requires that a number of devices are produced at once, and this carries some lead time for production, assembly, shipping, and testing. This motivates finding a solution for rapid prototyping that reduces the number of boards produced in each prototyping run, as well as reducing the lead time and cost for each run.
Traditional PCB manufacturing processes for rapid prototyping mirror large-scale production processes. The somewhat reduced lead time in rapid prototyping has little to do with changes in production and assembly processes. Instead, you are taking advantage of creative production management and greater digitization on the part of your fabricator. However, if you have access to an additive manufacturing system for rapid prototyping, you can avoid the longer lead time carried by working with a traditional PCB manufacturing house.
Bringing an additive manufacturing system in-house allows product developers to produce a single prototype in a matter of hours, rather producing a panel of new boards in days or weeks. This provides several benefits as part of product development. A design engineer can produce a single prototype, assemble it, test it, and determine appropriate redesigns in less time than a traditional fabricator takes to produce a panel of the same board. Design engineers can also produce multiple variants of a single prototype when experimenting with complex designs. This allows a design engineer to evaluate functionality and manufacturability with a lower, more predictable lead time and with fixed costs.
The ability to quickly produce a high mix of prototypes enables design engineers to be more innovative because they are not constrained by the traditional manufacturing process. Designers can experiment with creative board geometry, interconnect architecture, component embedding, and other design choices that may not be manufacturable with traditional processes.
Keeping these prototyping capabilities in-house also provides several benefits in terms of intellectual property security as innovative product developers in highly regulated industries (e.g., aerospace, defense, and medical devices) need not expose their designs to an outside party.
Low-Volume PCB Production with Additive Manufacturing
The greater design, production, and testing freedom provided by additive manufacturing processes during prototyping are also seen when producing complex products at scale. Whether additive manufacturing processes are used for prototyping or full-scale production, the lead time and costs are independent of the product’s complexity and instead depend on the weight of materials deposited during the printing process. Additive manufacturing systems are also ideal for high-mix production at low volume because production equipment does not need to be retooled or reconfigured for each board variant.
You can produce a mix of PCBs with much more complex shapes with additive manufacturing vs. traditional manufacturing.
The same cannot be said with traditional manufacturing processes for PCBs. In a traditional PCB manufacturing process, the production costs and lead times increase as the board layer count and number of vias increase. Similarly, boards with complex shapes require additional production steps, and boards with a complex interconnect architecture may not be manufacturable at all. Furthermore, many fabricators will not allow the production of multiple variants of a board or a large mix of different boards on multiple panels as production equipment must be reconfigured for each panel.
While traditional processes are great for low-complexity, zero-mix, high-volume manufacturing of less advanced electronics, additive manufacturing systems provide a clear solution for producing a mix of significantly more complex products. A broad mix of new boards with embedded components and any geometry can be quickly produced with these systems, particularly inkjet 3D printing systems, directly from a 3D model of the board without retooling. Additive manufacturing systems are also inherently digitized, allowing these systems to be integrated into larger digital manufacturing or lights out manufacturing processes. These systems provide manufacturers and product designers an alternative option for producing new products at high mix and low volume.
If you’re developing advanced electronics and need to produce at low volume, the DragonFly LDM system from Nano Dimension is ideal for producing complex PCBs in-house and at scale. This unique system provides high mix, low volume production of complex PCBs with planar or non-planar geometry, a complex interconnect architecture, and embedded components. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.