This post was first published by AMFG here.
The world of electronics is a young yet burgeoning area for 3D printing. From drones and satellites to laptops and smartphones, electronic devices are playing an ever-greater role in our lives. However, to operate, these devices depend on electronic components such as printed circuit boards (PCBs), antennas and sensors.
3D printing is redefining the way these components have traditionally been designed in part by providing faster product development and greater design complexity, most notably in the area of non-planar (i.e. non-flat) geometries.
Nano Dimension is a company leading the field of additive manufacturing for printed electronics. Founded in 2012, the Israeli-based company has developed its own technology — the DragonFly Pro System — that can simultaneously 3D print metals and dielectric polymers. Using the technology, companies are able to 3D print prototypes in-house, faster and at a lower cost.
In this week’s Expert Interview, we spoke with Simon Fried, the Co-Founder and President of Nano Dimension, to discuss the rise of 3D printing for electronics and how Nano Dimension is paving the way for this unique application.
Can you tell us a bit about Nano Dimension?
Nano Dimension exclusively offers additive manufacturing for electronics. Previously, electrical engineers haven’t had the luxury of being able to test out an idea by using 3D printing. Additionally, the concerns faced by electrical engineers today — such as the huge amount of planning and outsourcing to third parties — can be dealt with by being able to 3D print electrical circuits. So our solution offers the freedom, flexibility, secrecy and general practicality that 3D printing provides within the mechanical context and bringing it to electronics. That’s one aspect.
Speaking specifically about your DragonFly Pro System technology, could you touch more on the value it brings to the table?
Sure — imagine you’re an electrical engineer who needs to design the next PCB (circuit board) for your employer’s next product. The first thing you have to do is work out what needs to work in the product and what the right components and sensors are to use. That’s typically how a board is designed. And this is done using EDA (Electronic Design Automation) software — essentially, you’re using sophisticated design software and often also doing a lot of simulation before sending your design out to a third party manufacturer.
What Nano Dimension allows electrical engineers to do through our technology is to design and additively manufacture a physical board to ensure that’s it’s been designed correctly and see if there are any errors, oversights or opportunities for improvement. This is instead of having to obtain a purchase order or get a third party to manufacture the board, which could take as long as several weeks depending on the complexity of the design and the availability of the supplier.
With our technology, you’re able to go from having your idea to printing it in about a day. We’ve had customers that have been able to achieve 6 weeks of work in a day and a half because they were able to print boards for testing themselves instead of waiting for third party suppliers to deliver them.
By eliminating the middleman when it comes to prototyping, we enable companies to take more risks when designing. Designers are able to test more ideas more frequently and also to develop and test in secrecy. If you can develop quickly and cheaply, then the cost of failure is brought down, which means people aren’t afraid of innovating.
One of the reasons a lot of defence companies have been in touch with us is precisely because they’re often very constrained with regards to which designs they can send out and to which supplier. They think long and hard before they send anything out to a third party — and sometimes they’re just not allowed to.
So our technology allows you to do many of the same things that additive manufacturing allows you to do in the mechanical context but in the context of electronics.
What other benefits does additive manufacturing offer electronics?
Additive manufacturing allows you to make shapes and geometries that are not possible to make any other way. For an electrical engineer, who’s used to working in a very binary environment, all planar with either vertical or horizontal signal traces, that’s amazing.
The world of electronics is a lot less forgiving than say a mechanical engineer’s task, where you can solve a problem in many different ways and there are not that many constraints. Electronics doesn’t have any of those degrees of freedom — it’s very precisely defined by the traditional manufacturing process and the components that you plan to use. So you’re in a straitjacket when it comes to how you can design and manufacture.
With additive, you open up a whole host of new design opportunities for electrical engineers who are suddenly able to make things that have vastly different and non-planar geometries, as there are now far fewer constraints regarding how you go about designing things.
Until now, it’s never occurred to people to design differently because they couldn’t make differently.
For us, it’s a two-pronged approach: one is that you want to let people make the traditional PCB and RF electronics that they make today but more effectively, efficiently and independently. But we also want to allow people to start making different things, not just making things differently. That’s the vision of what we’re doing, change the manufacturing process, make it something that can be done in-house and with far greater design freedom as a result.
What are some of the challenges involved in 3D printing electronics?
It’s very complex additive manufacturing because we’re printing metals and polymers at the same time. Metals are best printed at elevated temperatures and have their own set of requirements for successful printing, which is usually very distinct to what’s good for polymers. This means there are a lot of material, process and resolution challenges when we are trying to get metals and polymers to get along with one another — which they typically don’t want to do.
We’re focused on printing both functional materials, simultaneously and at very high resolutions.
What’s the current state of electronics 3D printing market?
The whole area of 3D-printed electronics is a young space. There aren’t many companies that are active within it. But what we’re seeing is that the space is evolving in quite a similar way to how traditional additive manufacturing evolved and the early adopters of this new technology are oftentimes the same companies that dipped their toes in the water of traditional 3D printing perhaps 10 years ago.
The leaders in additive manufacturing adoption are the same kind of industries that are now making strides in the direction of additive electronics. So that’s the aerospace, defence and R&D organisations which are rushing to adopt the systems. So 3D-printed electronics is an exciting new technology and the most forward-looking companies or those with significant R&D needs are adopting it.
How do you see additive manufacturing evolving for electronics in the coming years?
The landscape is really exciting. What we’re seeing is that the world of mechanical and the world of electrical are getting ever closer. A key part of that journey is the mechanical design software, like Autodesk, Solid Edge and SolidWorks. Most of those companies are moving towards offering electrical design software as well. So the designer will be able to design electronic and mechanical parts in a more integrated way.
If we consider the kinds of products we’ll see in the future, what everybody ideally would have in their products or in factories are designs that elegantly merge the mechanical needs with the electrically functional, such as communication or computational, needs.
With flexible phones for example, we see that the mechanical properties are evolving rapidly, which means that the electrical capabilities also have to evolve alongside. And we can look at things like wearables — trying to get wearables to include electrical traces, which is very difficult. A lot of the wearables today are not yet delivering on form-factors that are optimal.
So whether it’s is wearables or other products, these worlds of mechanical and electrical are getting ever closer to each other. They have to do more things one alongside the other. Ultimately they have to adapt to the goals and needs of any customers or users. The IoT trend is also placing new demands on designers who are increasingly required to consider how to introduce electrical aspects into places that have historically been ‘dumb’ parts.
Long-term, we imagine that 3D printers will be printing ever higher proportions of final products, including what is currently being done on separate machines —whether that’s on the electrical or mechanical side, the assembly or even aesthetic such as colouring elements — all will be done in the same machines and these machines are going to be manufacturing very complicated, highly customisable products.
In the short term, we believe it’s going to evolve in much the same way the mechanical additive space has evolved. Over the last ten years, people have been speaking about rapid prototyping and it was only a very select set of companies really adopting additive manufacturing technology. This was then helped a lot by people being able to access additive manufacturing through service bureaus.
Now the 3D-printed electronics space is in the same position — it’s now probably where the traditional AM space was about 5 years ago. But it will catch up more quickly because there is more awareness now: electrical engineers are not coming to additive manufacturing completely clueless because they’ve seen what their mechanical colleagues have had access to and are already capable of doing. So we’ll see it becomes something that solves discrete manufacturing opportunities probably more quickly than has been the case for traditional mechanical applications.
At present, it’s mainly rapid prototyping, but it could be only a few years before we see higher-volume additive manufacturing of electronics. This is because nearly all products today involve electronics: cars, personal computers, homes, telephones. And now with the advent of the Internet of Things, everything is going to speak to everything. That means most products will be electrified in one way or the other. So everything is going to communicate and maybe even compute to a certain extent.
With all these trends of electronics going into places it’s just never been before, whether it’s food packaging, cars or medical devices like implants. These things are all going to change, they all are going to require better ways of making smaller things or better ways of making more complex things or better ways of making more functional things. In this day and age, those will ultimately require the electronics to adapt to new requirements.
You’ve mentioned that 3D-printed electronics is still very new and there are few companies on the market. What makes Nano Dimension a market leader in this space?
I don’t believe there are currently any enterprise or professional offerings for 3D-printed electronics other than what Nano Dimension has brought to market. In the same way that you have the maker community who might be using something like a Makerbot-type printer for home use, there are a couple of companies active in that area when it comes to printing electronics. But there aren’t any other solutions at the enterprise level.
So what we provide is quite a unique offering, a one-stop shop for electrical engineers or companies who want to change the way in which they design, make and innovate electronics. To the best of my knowledge, they won’t find such a solution anywhere else.
This post was first published by AMFG here.