Jan 2, 2020

Additive Manufacturing and Quality Control: What Electronics Engineers Should Know

additive manufacturing quality controlComponent traceability, in-lab testing, and inspection of finished products are critical aspects of quality control for electronic products. Large and small electronics OEMs in highly regulated industries must contend with the same set of quality standards on new products. Supply chain volatility, broadened product lines, and more advanced electronic designs place greater pressure on quality teams to ensure new products exceed quality requirements.

These problems become more difficult as more manufacturers must work in a high-mix, low-volume landscape. Because of these difficulties maintaining quality for more advanced or customized products, electronics engineers that design advanced electronics need access to systems that help expedite quality control without constraining innovation. Additive manufacturing and quality control go hand-in-hand, and electronics engineers can now use advanced 3D printing systems to manufacture advanced high-mix, low-volume devices at scale.

QC check for a manufactured PCB

Every PCB needs to pass basic quality checks.

High-Mix, Low-Volume Quality Control for Electronics

It is well known that high-mix, low-volume manufacturers can capture a unique segment of the market by quickly adapting to specific customer demand, remaining responsive, and reducing their inventory requirements. However, traditional short-run manufacturers, including PCB fabricators, can suffer quality problems due to repeated retooling and process variations, making statistical process control difficult. Similarly, supply chain volatility can force manufacturers to resort to unqualified component sources to meet production targets and lead times, putting manufacturers at risk of producing lower quality products and failed audits.

These quality control challenges are exacerbated in high-mix, low-volume, or fully customized manufacturing. With a larger number of products comes more frequent auditing, and greater customization requires more rigorous qualification. This has left product designers searching for simple design solutions that comply with traditional PCB and component fabrication processes, as well as expedite quality control inspections. Similarly, manufacturers must adopt processes that can be more easily adapted to high mix, low volume production of advanced electronics.

When you bring an additive manufacturing system in-house, you can take greater ownership over your quality control processes, especially when manufacturing at a high mix and low volume. Additive manufacturing systems are unique in that they are adaptable to a broad range of products without retooling requirements. As long as a digital model for the particular product is available, it can be quickly converted to 3D printing instructions using standard mechanical modeling software and plugins, allowing it to be immediately sent for fabrication.

Just like traditional PCB fabrication and processing assets, additive manufacturing systems require periodic cleaning and preventative maintenance, although these activities are no more time-consuming and complex than those required for traditional processing equipment. When you consider the adaptability of additive systems, the ability to serve customers with high-mix, low-volume products on-demand and with no retooling outweighs any maintenance and material costs. When you work with the right set of additive systems and processes, you can satisfy the demand for complex, fully customized electronic products with higher quality and predictable cost structure. However, to succeed, an advanced quality control process is needed  for functional part production—one that minimizes quality issues during the printing process and meets the desired reliability, repeatability, and preciseness need for end products. 

Additive Manufacturing Quality Control for Electronics Production

Whether you are manufacturing enclosures for electronic products, circuit boards, semiconductor devices and ICs, or cables and harnesses, electronics manufacturers face some particular challenges:

  • Increasing global competition and cost pressure. Production is often outsourced at high volume, requiring their contract manufacturers to be transparent with quality audits under ISO 9001, 14001, or 13485 (for medical devices). Increased competition can create a race to the bottom, where quality is sacrificed in favor of profitability. This is particularly problematic with smaller Chinese contract manufacturers in the electronics and optics industries.
  • A global supply chain with a high component mix. OEMs, innovative companies, and established electronics companies are working in a supply chain that is spread across the globe. Advanced products may require a broad mix of components from multiple suppliers. This makes part and product traceability more difficult, particularly in the face of passive component shortages and well-known incidents of counterfeiting.
  • High-mix, low-volume manufacturing requires more frequent auditing. Each product that comes off the fabrication line requires a rigorous inspection to ensure quality and functionality standards are met. A broader, more customized product line requires a larger number of inspections for statistical process control to become meaningful.

Working with an additive manufacturing system for high-mix, low-volume electronics production provides OEMs and contract manufacturers with several advantages over outsourced manufacturing, especially regarding the production of highly advanced electronics. 

Bringing these capabilities in-house provides direct quality control, a predictable cost structure, and immediate auditing of product quality. When these capabilities are brought in-house, advanced products can be immediately tested and validated, adjustments to the deposition and curing process can be determined, and redesigns can be assessed quickly. Additive manufacturing quality control can be expedited in this environment.

Additive manufacturing quality control and inspection

Additive manufacturing helps expedite quality control processes for complex PCBs.

Working with an in-house additive manufacturing system also helps companies protect their intellectual property. Keeping production capabilities in-house eliminates the need to expose an advanced design to a contract manufacturer. This is critical in the defense and aerospace industries, where intellectual property is a prime target for theft. Using additive systems for in-house production aids security and quality compliance processes 

There are many other benefits provided by additive manufacturing for electronics production. The layer-by-layer deposition process in 3D printing for electronics and multi-material capability allows PCBs with unique geometries to be fabricated directly from 3D models, which allows product designers to be more innovative with their design choices. Designers can experiment with component embedding, nonorthogonal interconnect architecture, non-planar geometries, and other complex board shapes, and high layer counts. Aerosol and inkjet 3D printing are ideal for implementing these types of design choices.

Once new designs are fabricated, they can immediately be inspected for functionality and product quality, ultimately reducing lead times and quality inspection times for finished products. This reduces risk for OEMs while allowing electronics engineers to take control of quality for advanced electronics. This also helps close the gap between R&D and full-scale production as innovative products can be quickly prototyped, tested, redesigned, and sent for production.

If you’re developing advanced electronics, you can take greater ownership over additive manufacturing quality control when you work with the DragonFly LDM system from Nano Dimension. This advanced inkjet printing system is ideal for producing complex electronics in-house and at scale. Your company can produce high-mix, low-volume PCBs with a planar or non-planar geometry, complex interconnect architecture, and embedded components. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.

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