When 3D printing systems were invented and eventually decreased in cost, they were often regarded as something of a novelty. The perception was that 3D printing could be used to create fun plastic toys and mechanical gears, but not much else. The landscape has changed significantly, and additive manufacturing systems are slowly becoming the norm in industry, rather than the exception.
Today, additive manufacturing is going mainstream thanks to many scientific and engineering advances. Researchers have a major role to play in developing new materials for use with these systems, new additive manufacturing processes, and even entirely new systems that have greater adaptability. These activities, in turn, are expanding the range of printable mechanical systems and electronic devices, including 3D-printed electronics.
These activities will encourage further mainstream adoption of additive manufacturing, either to complement traditional manufacturing processes or to replace them entirely. Here’s a closer look at the impact this technology has now and what the future of additive manufacturing in engineering may hold.
A 3D printing machine at work. The future of additive manufacturing in engineering will rely on this technology continuing to advance.
Alt text: A 3D printing machine at work, showcasing the future of additive manufacturing in engineering.
Complementing Traditional Manufacturing
When most people imagine the use of additive manufacturing in industry, they probably think of 3D printing parts for a large, complicated, mechanical part or 3D printing an entire product. Compared to subtractive manufacturing, additive manufacturing carries different cost drivers and can compete with or beat traditional manufacturing processes in terms of cost and adaptability. The adaptability of additive manufacturing allows its use to be extended to more vertical applications within a given industry.
In industries such as automotive and aerospace, additive manufacturing is being used to create parts for tooling and fixtures that form a central part of subtractive manufacturing processes. One excellent example involves 3D printing molds for injection molding. This greatly reduces the tooling costs associated with injection molding processes.
In areas like wireless sensor networking, additive manufacturing allows researchers to produce unique sensors with integrated wireless capabilities. 3D-printed PCBs for these sensors can have a unique form factor and even non-planar geometry, as well as integrated wireless capabilities in the form of printed antennas. Using a system that prints polymers facilitates fabrication of functional electronic components, including wireless embedded sensors and integrated battery holders.
Going further into the future, newer additive manufacturing systems and unique materials will facilitate a broader range of vertical applications. This allows scientists and engineers to develop devices and tooling that complement existing manufacturing processes. Engineers can also quickly develop proof-of-concept devices, prototypes, and low-volume manufacturing runs for of customized, highly complex products.
The Future of Additive Manufacturing in Engineering Will Include New Materials and Systems
Without a doubt, the future of additive manufacturing in engineering will be unlocked through the development of new materials that are versatile enough to be used with a broader range of commercial additive manufacturing systems. Likewise, researchers and engineers continue to develop new additive manufacturing systems that are adaptable to a broader range of materials.
Numerous materials for use in additive manufacturing systems are commercially available, but each material is specialized for particular applications. Materials are also specialized for particular deposition processes, such as inkjet printing, fused deposition molding, aerosol deposition, and other processes. Many additive manufacturing systems are not versatile enough to use any material, creating an obstacle to scaling. Each new, specialized application may require its own set of unique materials or even its own specialized system.
Each year, new industrial-grade 3D printers are being developed. Each available material must be qualified with these new machines to ensure the strength and durability of additively manufactured parts and devices. This particular hurdle illustrates the challenges involved in scaling additive manufacturing and broadening its use. Researchers in academia and industry are actively developing less expensive, adaptable materials for use with standard additive manufacturing techniques, as well as additive manufacturing systems that are versatile enough for use with a broader range of materials.
The newer systems and the broader range of materials being developed will also help increase throughput with these systems, improving productivity, printing resolution, build volumes, and loading/unloading procedures. This will help decrease the costs of additive manufacturing compared to traditional manufacturing methods, ultimately driving further industry adoption and expanding the range of use cases.
3D printing multilayer PCBs showcases the benefits of additive manufacturing in electronics design and R&D.
How Additive Manufacturing Aids Research and Development
Including an additive manufacturing system in your research facility provides several advantages for researchers. Complex materials with a unique structure and geometry can be investigated and quickly printed using these systems. This shortens the time to publication and ultimately speeds up industry adoption of these new technologies.
Additive manufacturing of unique electronic devices with non-planar geometries allows researchers to explore new electronic materials for use in harsh environments, and unique device architectures. In areas like sensor and drone networks, embedded wireless devices with unique printed antenna architectures allow researchers to experiment with new network topologies and communication protocols for these systems. These devices can be quickly printed and assembled in-house, allowing them to be placed in the field and gather data in days rather than weeks.
Research institutions like the University of Technology Sydney are investing in additive manufacturing systems to stay on the cutting edge of electronics research and development. On the industry side, Harris Corp. is using additive manufacturing to engineer new electronic modules and RF devices for aerospace applications.
Further academic and industrial research in materials processing, architecture and topology optimization, and the additive manufacturing systems themselves could bring important advances that will help broaden the range of available additive manufacturing applications. Likewise, additive manufacturing systems help expedite research in a variety of areas, including electronics, medicine, computer science, materials science, and much more.
No matter your area of research, you can help advance the future of additive manufacturing in engineering with the DragonFly Pro system. This system allows researchers in academia and industry to produce novel 3D-printed electronics for a variety of applications. If you’re interested in learning more about the DragonFly Pro system, read a case study or contact us today.