Jan 14, 2020

3D Printing in Consumer Electronics: 4 Benefits for Prototyping

3D printing in consumer electronicsConsumers have come to expect periodic releases of ever-more advanced electronics. From smartphones to smart home systems and wearables, new consumer products require significant evaluation and testing before they hit the market. Before moving to mass manufacturing, these new products require rigorous testing for quality, functionality, and user experience.

With new consumer product upgrade and release cycles becoming tighter, electronics designers need a solution that helps reduce the time involved in each R&D and prototyping cycle. By far, the most time-consuming and least productive portion of R&D is repetitive design, build, and test cycles. These activities are critical to ensuring product quality and functionality of consumer electronics, but they also consume a significant amount of time due to the constraints of traditional PCB fabrication processes.

Virtual reality consumer electronics in 3D printing

New products like VR systems require sophisticated electronics and a complex optical system.

Rapid prototyping of PCBs with traditional manufacturing processes is anything but fast, so designers need a real solution for true rapid prototyping. This illustrates the value of 3D printing in consumer electronics development and prototyping; designers can quickly create fully-functional electronics in a matter of hours rather than days, and this can be done in-house. Designers can innovate more often, quickly test functionality, and implement redesigns before manufacturing at scale.

Why Use 3D Printing in Consumer Electronics Development?

Additive manufacturing systems provide a number of benefits for electronics development, but these systems are still seen as being reserved for the production of advanced electronics for highly specialized applications. While additive manufacturing is ideal for complex electronics not found in the consumer space, 3D printing in consumer electronics development provides significant benefits in terms of prototyping and preparing for full-scale manufacturing.

Print, Test, and Redesign a Single Board in a Day

3D printing is unique compared to other manufacturing processes in that the time and costs involved in fabrication are independent of a product’s complexity. Instead, lead time only depends on the weight of the materials being deposited in the device. This means fabrication times for prototypes and finished products are highly predictable. With complex electronic devices, particularly multilayer PCBs, 3D printing eliminates repetitive etching, pressing, drilling, and finishing steps during fabrication. The right additive manufacturing system and process can be used to print a fully-functional board in less time than a traditional process.

Even the most complex PCBs can be printed in a matter of hours, rather than waiting days or weeks for a batch of panelized boards to be manufactured with traditional processes. Furthermore, you can print a single board or a number of variants in parallel with a 3D printer and test them immediately. This helps designers and engineers quickly diagnose functionality problems and determine required redesigns, ultimately reducing development time for new electronics.

Evaluate Boards Alongside Your Proposed Enclosure

Enclosures and packaging for consumer electronics are as important as the board that runs the device. The user experience for new products is defined by the mechanical behavior of the enclosure, as well as the device’s electrical capabilities. For devices with complex form factor, such as VR systems, wearables, and smart appliances, you’ll likely be unable to obtain a prototype enclosure for your new product in a reasonable amount of time. This slows down development cycles and creates a risk that the enclosure does not fit the board.

The layer-by-layer deposition process in 3D printing allows sensors, antennas, and other functional electronics to be printed directly onto plastic components, metal surfaces, and even glass panels and ceramic materials. A prototype board can be printed directly into a proposed enclosure and tested immediately for functionality, user experience, and mechanical rigor. When you bring a 3D printer for mechanical components into the in-house prototyping process, you can produce a fully-functional prototype for your product with less time and costs than with traditional manufacturing and fabrication processes.

Make Your Design Team More Agile

The central idea in agile design and development processes, both for hardware and software, is becoming adaptable to design changes. The previous two benefits are critical in that they allow design teams to repeatedly test design choices and determine required redesigns. This also helps design teams quickly adapt their products to changes in consumer tastes or customer requirements with less time and expense. This all rests on the ability to quickly evaluate and triage redesigns to complex products, a process that would normally take weeks with traditional PCB prototyping runs.

Agile design with 3D printing in consumer electronics development

Using 3D printing in consumer electronics development helps design teams become more agile, ultimately reducing time in each development cycle.

Protect Your Intellectual Property

Any time a design is sent out for fabrication, there is a risk that design data is tampered with or stolen. Unscrupulous overseas manufacturers may claim to help protect intellectual property, but there is no need to risk exposing a new design to competitors before your product hits the market. As additive manufacturing systems can be brought in-house, an innovative company can take greater control over product quality and design security. When taken alongside the hastened prototyping schedules, additive manufacturing systems help consumer electronics remain more competitive in a crowded, lucrative market.

Scaling Up and Customization

3D printing in consumer electronics production is only set to become more mainstream as more companies adopt an Industry 4.0 mindset. The elimination of tooling requirements, fixed costs and lead time, and elimination of traditional DFM constraints will ultimately enable customizable and modular consumer electronics. This represents a huge opportunity for manufacturers as they will have the ability to produce consumer electronics with high mix and low volume.

Additive manufacturing systems are inherently digitized, allowing them to be incorporated into a fully digital lights-out manufacturing ecosystem. This innate digitization and new standards on factory connectivity will allow manufacturing facilities to become more intelligent, autonomous, and productive. Manufacturers should expect these trends to continue beyond consumer electronics.

The use of 3D printing in consumer electronics development is set to change the way designers think about new electronic products and how companies scale up to full production. The DragonFly LDM system from Nano Dimension is ideal for producing complex electronics in-house, both for consumer markets and for specialized applications. Your company can also take a lights-out digital manufacturing approach with this advanced PCB fabrication system. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.

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