Sep 26, 2019

In-House PCB Rapid Prototyping: The Advantages of Additive Manufacturing

pcb-prototypingThe phrase “design, build, test” is something of a mantra among hardware and software developers. For hardware developers, these development cycles require fabrication of multiple prototypes during each build phase, followed by rigorous testing to ensure all design requirements are met. When a prototype doesn’t measure up to the design requirements, redesigns need to be implemented and the cycle repeats.

By far, the major bottleneck in these cycles is the “build” portion. Unless redesigns to a prototype are minor, the prototype will need to be rebuilt and reassembled before testing. If you are working with a breakout board or a single-board computing platform, or you are simply swapping components, you may not need to recreate your board from scratch. In cases in which the board itself receives significant redesigns, either in terms of shape or architecture, you’ll need to rebuild the board and retest its functionality.

3D printed PCB

Boards like these can be easily fabricated with in-house PCB rapid prototyping.

This is where using an additive manufacturing system for in-house PCB rapid prototyping can provide major advantages. In addition to providing a short, consistent, predictable prototype fabrication time, these systems allow designers greater creativity and innovation than boards manufactured with conventional processes. Incorporating an additive system into your R&D process helps your company stay more competitive by creating a consistent cost structure and reducing time to market.

Why Use Additive Manufacturing for In-House PCB Rapid Prototyping?

Moving through successive design, build, and test phases requires working with a manufacturer or in-house fabrication and assembly to produce prototypes. There are several services, both onshore and overseas, that provide rapid prototyping and short-run manufacturing services to companies developing new electronics. Whether you should use these services or use an additive system depends on several factors:

Design Complexity

More complex designs will carry greater costs and longer lead times. Additive manufacturing is unique compared to subtractive processes in that the costs and lead time are only proportional to the weight of raw materials used in a product, but these factors are nearly independent of complexity. This is not the case with traditional processes, in which the number of fabrication and assembly steps reaches into the dozens for multilayer PCBs.

The predictable cost structure and lead times provided by additive manufacturing systems enables faster iteration, decision making and response to market changes. This  allows designers to experiment with complex interconnect and board geometry without impacting the prototyping process or delaying time to market. Compare this to prototyping on a breakout board or microcontroller board, which are difficult or impossible to modify without affecting device functionality. This level of experimentation is impractical and cost-prohibitive with traditional PCB production processes.

Manufacturing Volume: Prototyping vs. Field Testing

If you’re still mired in the development phase and you need a functional prototype, then you may need a small number of boards, or even a single board. If you have made a firm decision that your board geometry will not need to change, and your interconnect architecture is generic, then ordering a low-volume run of unassembled boards from a traditional short-run manufacturer may be a good course of action. This is appropriate when you intend to compare the performance of a device with different component options. This is also appropriate if you are entering the field testing phase.

Even short-run manufacturers, however, will not produce a single board. If you are open to changing your board and interconnect geometry based on test results, you are better off from a cost and lead time perspective to produce a single board, rather than ordering a dozen or more identical, traditionally manufactured boards. An additive manufacturing system allows you to create and experiment with a single board, and the lower lead time allows you to quickly implement and validate redesigns.

Intellectual Property Security

In an era where overseas intellectual property theft is widespread, keeping prototyping capabilities onshore and in-house provides greater security. In industries that are highly regulated, such as medical devices and defense, you can take advantage of greater security, shorter lead times, and a fixed cost structure when you use an additive manufacturing system for in-house PCB rapid prototyping.

Inkjet 3D printing for in-house PCB rapid prototyping

Inkjet additive manufacturing system for in-house PCB rapid prototyping.

Unleash Design Creativity with In-House PCB Rapid Prototyping

Thanks to the reduced printing time, regardless of complexity, designers have greater freedom to break design for manufacturing rules that are inherent in subtractive PCB manufacturing processes. These rules inhibit design freedom by limiting interconnect architecture to an orthogonal geometry. The use of standard drilling processes limits multilayer board designers to circular vertical via geometry on planar substrates, making incorporation of unique via and interconnect architecture impossible.

When using an additive system for in-house PCB prototyping, designers have much more freedom to design complex PCBs. More complex boards with a unique interconnect architecture and geometry can be easily fabricated with an additive manufacturing system. Just as the interconnect architecture does not need to be orthogonal or planar, the substrate shape can also be very complex or nonplanar. This allows designers to create a board with potentially smaller size and tighter fit into packaging than traditional methods, significantly faster, and at a lower cost. In some industries, this is critical to overcoming stringent requirements such as weight

Conductive components like electromagnets, touch sensors, antenna arrays, and even capacitors can be placed directly on the surface or interior layers of a multilayer board thanks to the layer-by-layer printing process. An inkjet system that prints conductors and the substrate from dielectric inks is ideal for fabricating these devices. As part of prototyping for new electronic devices, these characteristics of additive manufacturing systems for in-house PCB rapid prototyping allow designers to be more innovative and bring new products to market faster than their competitors.

Rather than setting up a traditional operation or trying to adapt breakout boards as functional prototypes, you can take advantage of in-house PCB rapid prototyping with the right additive manufacturing system. The DragonFly LDM additive manufacturing system from Nano Dimension is ideal for rapid prototyping of a variety of complex electronic devices 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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