Jan 30, 2020

Enabling High-Mix, Low-Volume Manufacturing of Electronics with 3D Printing

High mix low volume manufacturingMass manufacturing has made modern life possible for people around the globe. The need to quickly manufacture products in high volumes is not going to change any time soon, but the traditional production environment is not suitable for high-mix, low-volume manufacturing of complex products. This is especially true for a number of plastic and mechanical products that require significant investment in tooling.

When it comes to complex electronics, particularly PCBs, the production process has remained largely unchanged over the past few decades. Cost-effective high-volume production of complex boards is a time-consuming affair that is not amenable to producing a high mix of customized PCBs. This motivates moving to a new manufacturing method for complex PCBs with high mix and low volume. Additive manufacturing systems eliminate many of the design and production constraints that are typically placed on PCBs, making them ideal for producing a high mix of customized boards.

Digital on-demand factory floor

Future PCB production with huge digital inventory can provide on-demand high-mix, low-volume manufacturing.

Challenges in High-Mix, Low-Volume Manufacturing of PCBs

As more manufacturers embrace the central ideas in Industry 4.0, more manufacturing assets will become connected on the factory floor, allowing design and production data to be passed between important units quickly and easily. New connectivity standards on factory assets are motivating this switch to a connected environment, where factory assets can communicate important production tasks with each other by drawing directly from design data.

Connectivity between traditional manufacturing assets and processes, particularly for electronics production, enables greater automation in high-volume production. However, there are many challenges involved in adapting PCB production processes to high-mix, low-volume manufacturing, especially for complex multilayer PCBs. These challenges include:

  • Retooling. Each signal layer in a multilayer PCB requires its own lithography mask to expose a photoresist in preparation for etching. Each of these masks must be customized for each signal layer and for plane layers with cutout regions.
  • Repetitive assembly steps. Every layer in a PCB requires some etching, drilling, plating, and chemical treatment steps. Each core and pre layer must then be pressed and bonded to build up a layer stack.
  • Moving away from panelization. PCB manufacturing is parallelized through the use of panelization, where multiple boards are placed in a panel and the entire panel is manufactured. For the majority of manufacturers, this restricts cost-effective production to high-volume manufacturing with a low mix of boards.

Each of these challenges creates cost and time barriers to high-mix, low-volume PCB production. There are a number of innovative manufacturing and rapid prototyping companies that have made serious efforts to provide fabrication for a greater mix of products within the traditional PCB manufacturing process. However, not all PCB manufacturers have these capabilities, and they still constrain product design and mix. Innovative PCB manufacturers that want to expand their capabilities and serve the high-mix, low-volume market should look to additive manufacturing systems for solutions.

Overcoming These Challenges with Additive Manufacturing

3D printing processes help fabricators address each of these issues in unique ways, making them ideal for high-mix, low-volume manufacturing of a variety of complex products, including PCBs. The fundamental layer-by-layer deposition process in additive manufacturing eliminates the traditional design for manufacturing placed on PCBs, allowing nearly any fully functional board to be produced with a single system.

As additive systems are inherently digitized and draw their fabrication instructions directly from 3D product models, they can be quickly connected with a central digital inventory database. This connectivity allows manufacturers to draw directly from their digital inventory and send complex PCBs into production on-demand without retooling. 

Similarly, high-mix manufacturers can receive custom orders from customers, quickly generate printing instructions, and send them into production. When mechanical 3D printing systems are brought onto the factory floor alongside 3D printers for electronics, manufacturers can create the board and enclosure for customized products in parallel. This allows a traditional low-mix, high-volume manufacturer to provide high-mix, low-volume printing services for complex products on-demand.

Design data and printing instructions for high-mix, low-volume manufacturing

3D printing instructions can be quickly generated from EDA design data using standard mechanical design tools.

Designs that are 3D-printable are significantly less constrained in terms of board shape, interconnect architecture, and component embedding. Because 3D printers require little to no retooling between printing runs, a high mix of designs can be sent for production in series and on-demand. This ability to be agile is invaluable to manufacturers as it helps them expand their customer base and provide customers with more options for fabricating complex electronic products.

The cost structure and fabrication time involved in 3D printing are unique in that they do not depend on product complexity. Instead, the costs involved only depend on the weight of materials consumed during fabrication, making these systems ideal for producing a high mix of complex products with predictable cost and lead time. Predictable cost and fabrication time are critical factors that enable high-mix, low-volume manufacturing of complex electronic products.

Working in a high-mix, low-volume manufacturing environment for complex electronics requires the right fabrication assets. The DragonFly LDM system from Nano Dimension is ideal for high-mix, low-volume manufacturing of complex additively manufactured electronic (AME) circuits in-house and at scale. This advanced system can produce advanced planar or nonplanar circuits with unique capabilities. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.

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