Jun 27, 2019

Additive Manufacturing’s Business Impact on Industry R&D Cycles

additive manufacturing business impactAny innovative company is familiar with the need to cultivate and maintain a vibrant R&D division to remain at the forefront of new technology and gain a first-mover advantage when developing new products. This means businesses must get the most innovation bang for their buck: Costs need to be kept in check while still providing innovators the freedom they need to experiment with new designs and products.

Thankfully, new prototyping and manufacturing technologies have matured to the point where innovators can have greater freedom to develop new products at a faster rate without incurring increased costs or risk. Additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping is increasingly forcing industry to rethink the design, build, and test processes when developing new products. As a result, additive manufacturing’s business impact on R&D cycles can be tremendous.

SEM image of a Hall effect sensor

SEM inspection of a new device is just one aspect of the R&D process for new electronics.

Additive Manufacturing’s Business Impact on R&D for New Electronics

The different cost drivers of additive manufacturing compared to traditional manufacturing comprise just one area of additive manufacturing’s business impact. Within the realm of PCBs and finished products that require a diverse array of electronic components, additive manufacturing yields a number of positive business impacts on R&D cycles for new electronic devices.

Greater Design Freedom

The trend in PCB design for new electronic products points to more complex architectures, form factors, and capabilities on these boards. Greater automation in traditional PCB manufacturing processes allows designers to think beyond the common rectangular board shape. Rigid-flex boards are no longer a specialty item and are found in many consumer electronic products. Multilayer boards are something of a standard requirement for any production-grade PCB, especially given the signal integrity and routing requirements in common electronics.

Despite some developments in manufacturing processes, traditional manufacturing processes for PCBs still limit the interconnect architectures that designers can implement in their boards. In a multilayer board on FR4, designers still need to choose an appropriate via and pad design to route signals through the inner layers. Designers that intend to produce a new PCB with a traditional manufacturer are still limited in terms of via size, clearance, filling, and the annular ring/pad size due to traditional PCB manufacturing processes. Designers that want to include conductive elements for antennas or sensors on a surface layer are limited to creating devices with planar architecture.

As high resolution inkjet additive manufacturing systems have evolved and now offer  the ability to print dielectric and nanoparticle conductive inks simultaneously, designers are no longer limited to designing on a planar substrate with planar conductive elements. This allows researchers and engineers to experiment with non-planar PCB architectures, new interconnect structures for increasing routing density (e.g., vertical conductive structures), non-planar conductive circuit elements like sensing elements or antenna arrays, and much more.

Faster Design, Build, and Test Cycles

In addition to the greater design freedom, in-house additive manufacturing capabilities hasten the design, build, and test processes as research teams aren’t forced to wait on a traditional manufacturer to fabricate their boards. Working with a traditional manufacturer, even one that claims to specialize in low-volume rapid prototyping, still incurs lead times of days or even weeks. In contrast, 3D printing processes for multilayer PCBs eliminate shipping as well as dozens of fabrication and assembly steps that are required in traditional processes, reducing lead times to a matter of hours.

The reduced fabrication time provided by a manufacturing system allows designers and engineers to immediately test their prototypes and determine the necessary redesigns. This reduces the overall R&D cycle time for new products, allowing them to reach the market faster. Given that the costs for producing and testing prototypes are competitive with the costs of traditionally manufactured prototypes, the reduced lead time reduces the overall costs of the R&D cycle and allows designers and engineers to focus on perfecting their new products.

If you work in a highly regulated industry, such as medical devices or defense, having additive manufacturing capabilities in-house eliminates the difficulty in locating a compliant manufacturer and helps you protect your intellectual property. Less-than-ethical electronics manufacturers are known to have reverse engineered PCBs with the goal of stealing intellectual property or gaining insight into competitor’s intentions. any companies have or are considering bringing manufacturing capabilities onshore in response.

Testing a prototype PCB; the additive manufacturing business impact reduces design, build, and test times.

Additive manufacturing’s business impact reduces design, build, and test times.

Fixed Costs Regardless of Complexity or Volume

Once it comes time to move past a proof of concept and functional prototype, you’ll need to produce newer prototypes that start to resemble a finished product that can be tested by the customer in the field. Significantly more prototype boards may be required at this point, and these prototype boards may need to be placed in enclosures before being shipped to customers and field testers.

When it comes time to manufacture a low-volume run of prototype PCBs, the cost per board is independent of manufacturing volume when additive manufacturing processes are used. In contrast, the cost per board with traditional processes starts very high and slowly decreases as volumes increase

The cost per board with additive manufacturing is also relatively independent of the complexity of the board due to the use of layer-by-layer 3D printing and deposition processes. In contrast, the costs per board with traditional PCB manufacturing processes increase as devices become more complex as more assembly steps are required. 

Using an additive process helps keep PCB prototyping costs down compared to traditional processes while still allowing designers to produce prototypes with complex geometries, interconnect architecture, and embedded or non-planar components.

Looking to the Future with Additive Manufacturing

As 3D printing processes continue to mature and are adapted to a broader range of materials for electronics, more companies will be able to take advantage of additive manufacturing’s business impacts in a positive way. The benefits of using an additive manufacturing system for unique PCBs go beyond controlling R&D costs. You’ll be able to execute design, build, and test iterations quickly without the design limitations imposed by traditional PCB manufacturing processes.

If you’re looking to reduce the time involved in R&D cycles and fully unleash the creativity of your designers and engineers, then you need to use the DragonFly Pro additive manufacturing system from Nano Dimension. This system is uniquely adapted for 3D printing of electronics with unique shapes and architecture. Read a case study or contact us today if you’re interested in learning more about the DragonFly Pro system.

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