Jan 21, 2020

Top Tips for Additive Manufacturing Production Planning for Electronics Developers

additive manufacturing production planningWith any new technology, there are hurdles to implementation in a practical, scalable environment, and additive manufacturing is no different. How additive products are created forces manufacturing engineers to completely rethink how an assembly line operates. Going further, integrating additive manufacturing techniques into a process alongside traditional fabrication techniques is a natural step toward greater automation. However, it requires rethinking how different portions of a process are scheduled and parallelized, and how the products are moved between the process steps.

Typical models for additive manufacturing production planning consider minimizing total production costs or time, and this is not typically formulated as a dual-objective problem. In reality, there is a tradeoff in terms of production time and costs, especially when the investment in 3D printing systems and required maintenance are considered. Whether you are producing electronics, mechanical parts, or both, additive manufacturing production planning will become more important as these processes see greater adoption, including alongside traditional manufacturing processes.

Production Planning 1Fabrication line with additive manufacturing production planning

How can you integrate additive manufacturing production planning into your fabrication line?

Additive Manufacturing Production Planning for PCBs

For all the advances in technology, PCB manufacturing is still stuck in the 1980s. Additive manufacturing systems for fully functional PCBs have the potential to transform electronics production, but bringing these processes into a production environment at scale requires rethinking production planning. If you’re a fan of 3D printing and you want to implement it at scale, here are four important points to consider in additive manufacturing production planning:

Don’t Fear Parallelization

Additive manufacturing systems can print a complete part in a single printing run, effectively eliminating several finishing and assembly steps during production. Part simplification and consolidation also decrease the number of finishing and assembly steps required during production. In effect, additive manufacturing consolidates multiple processes into a single process. This is especially true when 3D printing multilayer PCBs—the deposition process eliminates repetitive plating, etching, and pressing steps during production.

To keep throughput high, multiple 3D printers may need to be used in parallel when producing electronics at scale. This type of parallelization in traditional PCB production is normally accomplished through panelization. In additive manufacturing, bringing more printers onto the factory floor and running them in parallel is critical for increasing throughput.

While the up-front costs for these systems and materials can be high, the massively reduced material waste (over 90% reduction), consolidated fabrication steps, eliminated retooling steps, and reduced per-board fabrication time quickly offset these up-front costs and reduce cycle times. The side benefit is that greater parallelization allows for high-mix, low-volume on-demand PCB production, which can be difficult and costly in traditional high-volume PCB production.

Keep Track of Deposition Times and Use Data for Scheduling

Using additive manufacturing processes for PCB production eliminates many redundant design steps, but proper scheduling of 3D printing requires accurate knowledge of the deposition time. This depends on several factors, such as board geometry, the weight of raw materials used, and the number of boards produced in parallel in the printer. The weight and size of a 3D-printed PCB can be used to get a rough estimate of the deposition time. However, the deposition time can be measured directly by printing test coupons.

When your additive manufacturing assets are connected to a central command center and deposition data is gathered during production, fabrication times can be immediately measured and used to adjust production scheduling. This is particularly important in high-mix, low-volume on-demand production, where different products or product variants will require different fabrication and assembly times. An example of printing five different PCB designs on four printing lines is shown below.

Additive manufacturing production planning and scheduling with multiple 3D printers

Scheduling production of five products (labeled A through E) across multiple 3D printers.

A traditional fabrication line could not be used to print different products on different lines without retooling for each product. Additive manufacturing eliminates the need for retooling, allowing a high mix of products to be fabricated across multiple printers. If we were to separate different products across different printers, it becomes more difficult to schedule post-processing and assembly steps.

Digitize Your Post-Production Processes

Despite the high level of automation in many processes, many manufacturers, including PCB manufacturers, still manually plan post-production processes, such as plating, solder mask application, and assembly. This takes a significant amount of time and requires an engineer to walk through the production floor to understand what is happening in a process. 

As more manufacturers embrace the ideas in Industry 4.0 and associated digitization standards, connectivity between manufacturing assets can ease post-production scheduling. This allows post-production to be integrated with additive fabrication and streamlines the entire process.

Print Enclosures in Parallel

Onshore manufacturing for advanced electronics motivates a natural next step: onshoring of enclosure production and embedding components. Mechanical 3D printers can be used to fabricate a mechanical enclosure in parallel with PCBs, providing complete high-mix fabrication of finished products in-house. For advanced electronics companies, this could allow complex products to be fully manufactured without exposing design data and intellectual property. It also could allow manufacturers to take greater control over additively manufactured product quality.

Creating a fully additive environment takes the right production systems and software tools, especially in additive manufacturing production planning for electronics. The DragonFly system from Nano Dimension is ideal for high-volume, low-mix production of complex AMEs (Additively Manufactured Electronic) circuits in-house and at scale. This advanced system allows the deposition of fully-functional planar or nonplanar PCBs that are not possible with traditional processes. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.

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