Aug 20, 2019

Protecting Your PCB Intellectual Property with Additive Manufacturing

confidential designs and securityMaintaining data security is critical for companies in any industry, especially when data breaches and hacks are a near-daily occurrence. As manufacturing systems and processes become more digitalized, products become more complex and opportunities for theft increase. Therefore, electronics designers and manufacturers should consider security measures for guarding their intellectual property.

In the defense industry, electronics designers and manufacturers are at risk of intellectual property theft from two directions:

  1. PCB design data needs to be protected from internal and external theft. 
  2. Design data and finished products are also at risk of theft during the prototyping and manufacturing processes. 

The former problem can be addressed with the right network architecture and security practices, while the latter can be addressed by keeping prototyping and manufacturing capabilities in-house or with select manufacturing partners and processes. Defense companies that design and manufacture unique electronics for mission-critical systems must devise a PCB intellectual property protection strategy that addresses both sets of threats.

DVD with a padlock, illustrating PCB intellectual property.

Keep your PCB intellectual property under wraps with additive manufacturing.

PCB Intellectual Property Challenges in the Defense Industry

Defense companies generate and have access to particularly sensitive data and must maintain security over their intellectual property. Data theft can occur within any organization, and preventing this theft requires implementing the right data access protocols and monitoring software throughout the organization. When supported with the right architecture for segmenting different portions of a network, IT managers can control and track access to design data and different manufacturing assets within a facility.

Intellectual property theft can also occur from outside an organization. Hackers in foreign countries routinely attempt to break into secure networks to steal sensitive data or to disable mission-critical systems and infrastructure. Implementing network segmentation practices allows sensitive data, including design data for PCBs and other products, to be segregated from public-facing portions of a network, ultimately rendering them inaccessible.

Many companies that design electronics systems tend to outsource PCB manufacturing overseas, providing unscrupulous manufacturers in foreign countries an opportunity to steal and reverse-engineer designs for mission-critical systems. Anyone working at a foreign facility will have an opportunity to steal design data or a finished product from the assembly line. For simpler designs and consumer products, the damage may be negligible, but the theft of complex PCBs for use in mission-critical systems can harm forces’ tactical advantage.

How Additive Manufacturing Aids Intellectual Property Protection

The risks involved in sending a PCB design to an overseas manufacturer as well as the risk of outsourcing on-shore, are best overcome by keeping manufacturing capabilities in-house. Rather than creating an entire traditional PCB manufacturing and assembly line, electronics companies can use additive manufacturing systems to produce quick-turn prototypes and finished products entirely in-house. This can be done with a lower cost per board and reduced fabrication time compared to traditional prototyping processes.

As new manufacturing methodologies like lights out manufacturing increase in popularity, designers and IT managers need to take greater control over access and administration of the manufacturing process. Additive manufacturing systems represent a continued advance in automation and will inevitably be integrated into fully connected factories under the IPC-CFX standards.

This level of integration requires careful segmentation and administration of manufacturing assets throughout the network in a facility. Bringing these capabilities in-house allows IT managers to take complete control over access to sensitive design information and access to these systems. Contrast this with the typical situation involving an overseas manufacturer, where a company has no control over access to sensitive design data.

As additive manufacturing systems become more ubiquitous and their capabilities broaden, more industries will be adopting these systems and processes to complement or replace their existing traditional processes. Designers and engineers will be able to work with these systems directly, eliminating confusion and ambiguity that can arise when working with an overseas manufacturer. Using an in-house additive manufacturing system can also improve security companies’ research productivity due to the flexibility it provides. 

Beyond PCB Intellectual Property Protection

Using additive manufacturing systems provides electronics companies that build systems for the defense industry several benefits beyond intellectual property protection. 

Electronics for use in defense systems tend to be produced at a lower volume than consumer electronics, and PCBs for use in experimental systems can be quite complex. Experimental devices, such as high-frequency RF devices and boards for sensor arrays, may not be manufacturable with traditional processes. An additive manufacturing process can be adapted to manufacture a board with any level of complexity.

The cost drivers of additive manufacturing processes are nearly independent of design complexity, making additive processes ideal for fabrication runs of high-complexity, low-volume PCB. The fabrication time that comes with an additive process is also independent of board complexity and only depends on the size of the board. Keeping these capabilities in-house reduces  lead times during a manufacturing run and allows designers to quickly manufacture a fully functional prototype or finished product in a matter of hours. 

Print head on a 3D printer.

Keep your PCB intellectual property secure with additive manufacturing.

As an example, a designer can quickly manufacture a single multilayer PCB with complex non-planar geometry and interconnect architecture in a matter of hours. This rapidly produced prototype can then be immediately assembled and tested as part of the development process. Incorporating design changes, after testing, is also a simple process, giving designers greater flexibility, reliability and speed at a significantly lower cost. 

Contrast this with manufacturing a single multilayer PCB using subtractive processes, which can take weeks and require dozens of assembly steps. The traditional process also removes the freedom to design a board with complex geometry and forces the designer to implement a standard interconnect architecture consisting of vertical via structures.

Currently, specific additive manufacturing processes need to be adapted to specific additive systems and materials, and designers must weigh these capabilities against their desired functionality during the design phase. However, the range of available materials for use in additive manufacturing systems, both for electronics and other products, is expected to broaden. PCB designers in defense and other industries can expect their design options to increase over time as a result.

Keeping your design, prototyping, and fabrication capabilities in-house and implementing best security practices will decrease opportunities for PCB intellectual property theft. Rather than sending your board off to an external company for fabrication, using additive manufacturing for complex 3D-printed electronics allows you to keep design and manufacturing capabilities under one roof. The DragonFly LDM is a unique inkjet system that is specifically designed for printing planar and non-planar 3D-printed electronics. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.


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