One aspect of electronics engineering that holds true is the growing need for advanced materials. Advanced electronics require advanced materials processing and fabrication processes to build fully-functional devices for unique applications. As the range of advanced materials for electronic, medical, and biotech applications expands, new processes are being developed to move these devices out of the lab and produce new products at scale.
PCBs have lagged behind other industries in terms of advances in new materials processing techniques, but 3D printing is helping to bridge the gap between the use of advanced materials and electronic devices. Advanced materials in 3D printing include a range of advanced polymers, nanoparticles, ceramics, and even graphene composites. These materials are enabling traditional and advanced electronics applications while taking advantage of the design and fabrication flexibility of additive manufacturing systems.
More advanced materials in 3D printing are enabling new applications in a range of industries.
Advanced Materials in 3D Printing Processes
Many advanced materials are already used in 3D printing and additive manufacturing processes, both for production at scale and in R&D efforts. Whether you’re developing new mechanical, optical, or electronic products, you’ll find a broad range of materials that can be tailored for advanced applications. There is currently a wealth of research on the use of advanced materials in 3D printing processes. Generally, advanced materials fall into one of three broad areas: ceramic composites, polymers, and nanoparticle ink suspensions.
Ceramics are a broad class of materials that can be deposited from slurries at low temperatures. The mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties of these composite materials can be tuned by including various additives in the deposition slurry. Fabrication and use of these materials in the aerospace industry and as a PCB substrate with high thermal conductivity is a deep research topic. Some upcoming applications include additive fabrication of ceramic composites with carbon fiber and graphene fillers.
One contemporary challenge in ceramic fabrication using fused deposition modeling (FDM ) and related additive processes is delamination during sintering. Ceramics must normally be printed and subsequently sintered at a specific temperature, and these processing parameters will affect the interlayer bonding strength in the 3D printed material. If not deposited and post-processed in the right conditions, the printing product may have low interlayer bonding strength, which can lead to delamination. The chemical constituents in these materials can also volatilize and diffuse through the material, creating voids in the microstructure that also reduce the mechanical strength.
The research community is currently focused on optimizing a number of advanced ceramic materials and their fabrication processes to cater to several applications. Take a look at this thorough review article in the Journal of the European Ceramic Society for a contemporary perspective on 3D printing with advanced ceramic materials.
As a broad class of chemicals, polymers offer the greatest promise for developing a variety of biocompatible electronic and mechanical products. The material properties of polymers and polymer composites are highly tunable through doping, functionalization, mixing, and crosslinking. There is also a broad range of low-temperature polymers, meaning they can be quickly used in existing low-temperature/low-pressure deposition processes, including FDM, fused filament fabrication (FFF), aerosol jetting, and inkjet printing.
Some upcoming applications include 3D printing of semiconductor devices from inorganic and organic polymers, a broad range of biocompatible polymers for bone tissue engineering and implantable medical devices, and insulating polymers with tunable dielectric properties. Take a look at this recent review in Composites Part B: Engineering for a full discussion on some applications of 3D-printed polymers.
Many polymers can be easily used in FDM systems.
Nanoparticle Ink Suspensions
This class of materials spans a broad range of polymers, conductors, semiconductors, and composites. Insulating and conductive nanoparticle inks are the two primary components required for PCB fabrication as these are used to deposit the substrate and interconnects, respectively. As long as a material can be synthesized as a relatively monodisperse nanoparticle suspension, it can be incorporated into many different additive manufacturing processes.
For mechanical parts, nanoparticle suspensions are in widespread use with selective laser sintering (SLS) and powder bed fusion (PBF). For PCB fabrication, insulating polymer and metal nanoparticle suspensions are ideal for use in aerosol jetting and inkjet printing processes, where the two materials can be co-deposited in a layer-by-layer process. In particular, polymer nanoparticle suspensions are ideal for use as PCB substrates with customizable material properties. The particular strength of this class of material is the ability to tune the material’s dielectric constant and dispersion.
The range of nanoparticle materials for use in additive manufacturing processes is quite broad. Read this recent article in Advanced Electronic Materials to learn more about the range of nanoparticle materials for use in electronic devices.
The Advantage of Using Advanced Materials in Additive Manufacturing Systems
The advantage of adopting these advanced materials in 3D printing processes is the design freedom afforded to designers. Additive processes allow new mechanical, optical, and electronic products to be fabricated with nearly any geometry, which frees product designers from traditional manufacturing constraints. When combined with the novel material properties of advanced materials in the above areas, researchers and engineers can fabricate fully-functional devices quickly while experimenting with different design choices.
In the realm of PCB design and fabrication, the use of advanced nanoparticle and polymer materials allows new products to be heavily tailored to specific applications. High-speed digital devices in telecom, automotive, defense, and aerospace require substrate materials with near-zero dispersion throughout the relevant bandwidth and high thermal conductivity. Similarly, RF devices operating at mmWave frequencies and beyond require extremely low-loss materials. These are particular characteristics that are difficult to produce in most commercial laminates, especially when working at 40 GHz and beyond.
As the range of useful processes and advanced materials continues expanding as part of the drive towards Industry 4.0, designers will have more options for designing and fabricating new products at scale. These systems are helping hasten electronics R&D cycles as new products can be immediately fabricated, tested, and produced at scale. If your company wants to remain competitive in highly advanced industries, an additive manufacturing system can help you innovate new products and get to market quickly.
If you’re developing new electronics from advanced materials with 3D printing, then you need a system that produces fully-functional devices from low-loss nanoparticle inks. The DragonFly LDM system from Nano Dimension is an advanced inkjet printing system that is ideal for producing complex electronics in-house and at scale. Your company can produce high-mix, low-volume PCBs with planar or non-planar geometry, complex interconnect architecture, and embedded components. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.