Aug 29, 2019

Direct Digital Manufacturing with 3D Printing: How It’s Changing Electronics Development

3d-printing3D printing is driving a new revolution in manufacturing. What used to be relegated to college dorm rooms and prototyping of simple plastic models has finally matured into a realistic set of manufacturing technologies. Direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing represents a manufacturer’s dream, where costs and lead times can be more reliably predicted for a variety of products. This not only eases management and budgeting challenges for manufacturers, it also provides product designers in a variety of industries with greater freedom.

All aspects of modern life are becoming more digitalized and connected, and the factory floor is no exception. As a new methodology for building and connecting factory assets, direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing is bound to see greater adoption as the range of additive processes and connectivity expands. This is already being felt in the electronics industry through additive manufacturing of PCBs.

Direct digital manufacturing enabled by 3D printing will continue to impact assembly of electronic products, including assembly of televisions, shown here.

Direct digital manufacturing enabled by 3D printing will continue to impact the factory floor and assembly of electronics.

From Rapid Prototyping to Full-Scale Production

Ever since its invention in the 1980s, 3D printing has spent most of its lifetime being relegated to novelty, academia, and rapid prototyping. The slow expansion beyond plastic fusion has expanded to include fabrication of metallic, polymer, plastic, and hybrid parts with complex geometries. Industries like automotive, footwear, and aerospace are already taking advantage of the cost savings and reduced lead times provided by complementing traditional manufacturing and assembly processes with additive manufacturing.

The digitalized nature of direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing provides product designers with greater freedom to adapt new products to their production and assembly process. Designers can rapidly transfer a new design to manufacturing thanks to the elimination of retooling. The lead time for first articles is greatly reduced, regardless of product complexity. This allows for rapid prototyping, low-volume manufacturing runs, and higher volume runs of complex products with a fixed cost structure and predictable lead times.

With greater digitalization comes greater connectivity, allowing disparate portions of an overall manufacturing process to work in tandem. This really transforms a factory into a connected IoT ecosystem, where factory engineers have greater control over each portion of a process. The range of industries where direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing is applicable is only expected to continue expanding, and this revolution has already affected PCB design and fabrication.

Direct Digital Manufacturing with 3D Printing for PCBs

Between the lack of useful materials, temperature limitations, and incompatibility between suitable printing processes and available materials, 3D printing systems were long viewed as unsuitable or impractical for fabricating circuit boards and electronic components. As the additive space has matured beyond fabricating complex plastic and fully metallic parts, companies in the industry have adapted more materials, like insulating and conductive inks for 3D printing functional PCBs. These unique materials allow fabrication of complex functional electronics using a low-temperature inkjet printing process, as well as co-deposition of a substrate and conductors in a single printing run directly from a digital model.

As additive manufacturing processes rely entirely on generating digital fabrication instructions directly from a digital model for a part, they form the cornerstone of digital manufacturing for low-volume, high-complexity devices. This includes direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing for PCBs. Conventional manufacturing instructions and data for these products are created using EDA software, and the file format compatibility between EDA software and MCAD tools like SolidWorks allows design specifications to be quickly translated into printing instructions for an additive system.

Contrast this with the typical subtractive process for PCB fabrication, which still requires some human intervention throughout the manufacturing process. There is still insufficient integration between conventional PCB manufacturing assets and processes to enable full-scale digital manufacturing, although there are a small number of advanced companies that are exceptions. While the upcoming IPC-CFX standards will help address the integration required for digital and lights out manufacturing, additive systems are immediately adaptable to low-volume direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing.

This is because the entire board fabrication process proceeds by following layer-by-layer printing instructions, which eliminates the redundant plating, etching, and pressing steps required in conventional manufacturing of multilayer PCBs. Perhaps most important is the relationship between complexity, fabrication time, and fabrication costs per board with additive and subtractive processes for PCBs. In additive processes, the fabrication time and costs per board are fixed for any level of board complexity. In contrast, more complex products in subtractive processes carry greater costs because they require more assembly steps, which also increases assembly time.

Multilayer PCB

Manufacturing this multilayer PCB is simple using direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing.

These characteristics of direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing radically change the cost structure for manufacturing to one that relies on considering fixed costs rather than highly variable costs. For product developers, it makes their costs much more predictable over the long term, reduce errors and also allows them to increase the overall quality of the finished product. For manufacturers, this eliminates up-front costs for tooling their manufacturing process to a new product. Tooling costs no longer need to be amortized across all units that are produced in a production run. Because the printing time per board is fixed and lead times due to tooling are eliminated, product developers and end-customers can easily predict lead times and schedule production runs accordingly.

As the speed, reliability, and range of useful materials in additive processes improves and broadens, one can expect direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing to take prominence in many more industries. The cost structure, predictability in costs and lead times, and level of design complexity enabled by 3D printing allow these savings to be passed onto the consumer. Companies that complement or replace their traditional processes with additive processes will see real economic benefits and greater competitiveness going into the future.

Now you can add direct digital manufacturing with 3D printing to your electronics development and fabrication process. The DragonFly LDM additive manufacturing system from Nano Dimension is ideal for low-volume manufacturing of electronic devices with complex architectures. Read a case study to learn more or contact us today to further discuss the DragonFly LDM system.

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