Nov 7, 2019

How Much Does 3D Inkjet Printing Cost PCB and Electronics Developers?

3d-printingAny company that intends to produce new products at scale will need to weigh the costs of purchasing or upgrading manufacturing assets. The same applies to additive manufacturing systems, which carry a similar set of costs. However, the cost drivers in 3D printing systems are unique and will influence the decision to complement or replace traditional manufacturing processes with additive manufacturing assets.

As a unique additive manufacturing technique that allows co-deposition of conductive and insulating materials, inkjet printing is the ideal choice for 3D printing highly complex PCBs and other electronic devices at low to medium volume. An investigation of 3D inkjet printing cost and a comparison with other additive and traditional processes is warranted. However, designers and manufacturers should also consider the indirect benefits of working with any 3D printing system, particularly inkjet printing for PCBs and electronics.

Red 3D printer and print head

3D inkjet printing cost and production times are highly competitive.

Comparing 3D Inkjet Printing Cost Against Traditional Fabrication

The range of different additive processes and the variety of tasks involved in traditional PCB manufacturing makes direct comparisons quite difficult. This is compounded by the unique cost structure of additive processes. However, one can make some general comparisons in six key cost areas, as shown in the table below:


3D Inkjet Printing

Traditional PCB Fabrication

Other additive processes

Raw material costs

Medium to high


Low to high

Raw material waste

Low to none

Medium to high

Low to none

Tooling costs


Low to medium

Low to none

Initial investment


Medium to High


Fabrication costs

Fixed by weight, complexity agnostic

Varies with weight and complexity

Fixed by weight, complexity agnostic

Break-even volume

Low to medium

Medium to High

Low to medium

The most obvious differences between traditional PCB fabrication, 3D inkjet printing, and other additive processes are in the raw material costs, fabrication costs, and material waste. The cost of raw materials for use in inkjet printing can be significant, while the material costs in other additive processes vary widely depending on the exact process. However, these costs involved in additive processes for PCB production are greatly offset by the low material waste. Because fabrication costs with additive processes are fixed by the weight of raw materials used, their
cost structure is extremely competitive and predictable.

Tooling costs for most additive systems are very low and are zero for inkjet printing. This is because additive systems are specialized to work with different materials, processes, and designs. When one compares the initial required investment and considers the fixed cost structure in additive manufacturing, this explains why the break-even volume lower with additive processes compared to traditional PCB fabrication.

Interpreting the 3D Inkjet Printing Cost Structure

In breaking down 3D inkjet printing cost for different end products, one quickly finds that it is difficult to make a one-to-one comparison. Different materials are only usable with certain systems and deposition processes. Furthermore, different materials are specialized for use in particular products. 

One cannot simply mix-and-match different 3D printing systems, materials, and end products. In determining whether 3D printing is viable for use in your manufacturing process, one needs to compare the costs for a specialized system and materials with those used in a traditional process.

Despite the difficulty in constructing a decent comparison of different materials and 3D printing systems, these systems and materials have similar cost drivers that influence the cost of a finished product. These cost drivers help explain how 3D printing provides distinct cost advantages (both direct and indirect) in rapid prototyping and production at scale. Fixed tooling costs should also be included in any cost comparison.

The raw materials involved in 3D printing account for anywhere from 18% to 30% of total production costs, depending on the process and range of materials required for a finished part. The unique advantage of 3D printing is that production costs are relatively independent of product complexity and instead depend on the total weight type of materials used for production. The same can be said for the time required for printing. This makes 3D printing ideal for producing highly complex products at lower scale. At sufficiently high volume, the cost per part required in traditional processes eventually drops below those required for 3D printing.

3D Inkjet Printing Cost: Intangible Benefits in PCB Production

The cost drivers and characteristics discussed above apply equally to inkjet printing. The high resolution provided by 3D inkjet printing and the ability to co-deposit conductive and insulating materials makes this process ideal for production of complex PCBs with unique architectures. Bringing a 3D inkjet printing system in-house provides several other benefits for electronics engineers beyond its  for potentially competitive costs.

Whether you’re looking for rapid prototyping capabilities, customization or planning to produce electronics at volume, bringing an inkjet system for PCB production in-house gives designers extreme freedom to innovate. Designers can experiment with new interconnect architectures, component embedding, direct printing of electronic components, and much more. Working with an additive system in-house allows designers to produce one-off or experimental designs and test them immediately, ultimately hastening the entire R&D process.

Workers in a clean room

In-house 3D inkjet printing and other additive processes can expedite R&D for new products.

Manufacturers may also take direct control over product quality and IP security, ultimately leading to higher quality products for a broad range of applications. Bringing traditional PCB manufacturing assets in-house provides some of the same benefits, but designers lose the freedom to innovate, companies pay higher up-front costs, and the cost structure becomes less predictable. Hazardous materials and environmental concerns also challenge the traditional approaches. For high-complexity, low-volume PCBs, in-house production with 3D inkjet printing may be  superior in terms of cost, design freedom, manufacturing flexibility, and IP security.

As the range of new materials for use in inkjet printing broadens and material production capacity scales, manufacturers can expect 3D inkjet printing costs to decrease and the range of specialized applications to expand. This will facilitate fabrication of more unique electronics products and PCBs.

When weighing 3D inkjet printing cost against the cost of other processes for PCB fabrication, designers and engineers need to consider the intangible benefits provided by their particular system. The DragonFly LDM system from Nano Dimension is a unique 3D inkjet printer and is ideal for in-house PCB fabrication. This system allows low to medium scale manufacturing of complex electronics with a planar or non-planar architecture. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.

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