Sep 19, 2019

Benefits of Using Additive Manufacturing Technology for Components Production

pcb componentsElectronics designers and manufacturers must pay constant attention to the supply chain for electronics components. Frequent component shortages, significant lead times, and even instances of counterfeit components motivate the use of other methods for directly fabricating electronic components for use in PCBs as an overall strategy in part simplification. The goal is to reduce the fabrication time and number of assembly steps involved in the electronics manufacturing process.

This same goal of part simplification has been used in other industries to fabricate complex mechanical parts with reduced fabrication time, fewer assembly steps, lower weight, less waste, and competitive costs. As the same principles are applied to PCBs and electronic components, one can expect greater automation to appear in the PCB manufacturing space. This is particularly true as additive manufacturing technology for components production becomes more specialized for electronics.

Engineer examining a new integrated circuit

In the near future, you might use additive manufacturing technology for components production to manufacture this integrated circuit.

Additive Manufacturing Technology for Components Production

One goal in design for additive manufacturing is to reduce fabrication costs and assembly steps by decreasing the complexity of traditional products. Part simplification relies on eliminating unnecessary portions of a product by reducing multiple parts of a single component. Taking mechanical systems as an example, this provides a higher strength part by eliminating stress concentration at fastener points and welds, as well as reduces the overall weight by eliminating fasteners themselves and other unnecessary parts of a larger system. These benefits of part simplification have been a major driver of the recent growth in additive manufacturing in a number of industries.

In electronics manufacturing, we see something similar with the goal of eliminating redundant, manual, or time-consuming steps during assembly. However, the exact level of available simplification and consolidation depends on the exact 3D printing process used for fabrication of components, PCBs, semiconductor devices, or other devices. As complex multilayer PCBs can require dozens of fabrication and assembly steps to manufacture a single panel, they are a prime candidate for part simplification using additive manufacturing.

In additive manufacturing technology for components production during PCB fabrication, part simplification involves two aspects: 

  1. Directly printing an electronic component on the PCB as it is fabricated.
  2. Co-depositing a substrate and conductive structures simultaneously. 

Inkjet printing with insulating and conductive inks, as well as aerosol jet printing, are extremely useful in this process. This additive process only requires two materials (a conductive and insulating material) to print the interconnect architecture, PCB substrate, and conductive components simultaneously.

Other additive processes are being used to 3D print passive and active components using other processes. These other processes, such as FDM with low-melting-point alloys or polymers on FR4, are difficult to integrate into a process that involves co-deposition of conductors and the insulating substrate, but they can be used to 3D print discrete components.

As an example, researchers at UC Berkeley used an FDM process to 3D print passive components and a 0.53 GHz wireless sensor using a multiple-nozzle 3D printing system. Their process still needs to be perfected and the components need to be further miniaturized. Still, these components can be fabricated to have a broad range of resistance, capacitance, or inductance values. Other companies, like AT&S, are leading the way in commercializing these capabilities.

An inkjet process that involves insulator and conductor co-deposition can still be used to fabricate conductive electronic components, such as electromagnetic coils, inductors, BGAs, conductive touch sensors, and antenna arrays. Components like capacitors are still in the proof of concept stage as they use the substrate as the dielectric. However, directly printing these components alongside an insulating substrate allows these components to be easily embedded in internal layers if desired, which frees up space on the surface layers for other components.

Engineers creating 3D models for mechanical parts

Part simplification is an important aspect of using additive manufacturing technology for components production.

Embedding and Unique Interconnect Architecture

Note that “part simplification” is not equivalent to “PCB architecture simplification.” Integrating conductors and the PCB substrate into a single unit allows a fully functional multilayer PCB to be fabricated without redundant plating, etching, and pressing steps, meaning an additively manufactured PCB is analogous to a simplified part in a mechanical system.

The layer-by-layer printing process also allows traditionally manufactured components to be easily embedded and vertically integrated into the substrate, which is extremely difficult or impossible with standard subtractive PCB manufacturing processes. This process of embedding standard electronic components nicely complements the use of additive manufacturing technology for components production. In addition to additively manufacturing components directly on a PCB, this level of simplification can be complemented through embedding components and designing a unique interconnect architecture.

The use of a layer-by-layer printing process gives designers significant freedom to design an interconnect architecture that is impossible to fabricate with traditional PCB manufacturing processes. This can include non-orthogonal routing and via architecture, curved vias, vertical traces, and other unique conductor structures. Additive manufacturing processes, especially inkjet printing, allows a designer to easily fabricate PCBs with very complex shapes and non-planar geometry, both of which are not practical or impossible with subtractive PCB manufacturing processes.

As more additive manufacturing systems and processes become specialized for component production, more materials become available for use in these systems, and greater integration of processes continue, expect to see additive manufacturing systems that can be used to 3D print an entire device and its components in a single manufacturing run.

Taking advantage of additive manufacturing technology for components production requires the right additive manufacturing system and fabrication process, especially for electronic components. The DragonFly LDM additive manufacturing system from Nano Dimension is ideal for the fabrication of a variety of complex electronic devices with a planar or non-planar architecture in a number of applications. Read a case study or contact us today if you’re interested in learning more about the DragonFly LDM system.

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