Additive Manufacturing for Rapid Prototyping Electronics: How Technology Has Evolved

What started as a single process involving photopolymers and a UV lamp has expanded into a range of manufacturing processes that use ever-more complex materials. Despite the popular idea that 3D printing is something a college student does in their dorm room, this technology is revolutionizing new product development and manufacturing. Industry has gone far beyond creating small plastic models from CAD files, and 3D-printed components already appear in commercial products. Without a doubt, the additive manufacturing landscape will continue to evolve and expand into new areas.
High-precision sterile additive manufacturing facility

Additive Manufacturing and Rapid Prototyping in Industry

Over the last three decades, industry has embraced additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping and for producing parts that appear in finished products. The range of additive processes has also expanded over time. Stereolithography (SLA) was the first process used for additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping, but the portfolio of processes has also expanded to include fused deposition molding (FDM), selective laser sintering (SLS), and aerosol and inkjet printing.

3D printing with SLA, invented by Charles Hull in 1984, was used to cure and solidify photopolymers that were molded into the shape of a 3D model. Later, 3D printing would quickly make its way into the medical field. Scientists at Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine 3D printed the first synthetic scaffolds for human organs with a modified inkjet printer in 1999. The range of 3D-printed organs and electronic medical devices has only expanded since then.

The range of materials available for use in additive manufacturing systems is also expanding. A range of plastics, metals, and polymer-based materials can be 3D printed with a variety of systems and processes. Although additive systems must be adapted to specific materials, the range of parts that can be produced with a given system is much broader than what can be produced with traditional processes. Additive systems are much less limited because they do not use specific tooling like injection molds, making them more adaptable to a broad range of products.

Despite the initial investment and material costs associated with additive systems, these costs are easily offset as assembly steps are eliminated, material waste is significantly reduced, and lead times are reduced to hours instead of weeks. The costs associated with additive manufacturing systems and materials are expected to decrease as more companies enter the market.
Selective laser sintering of a metal component
Complementing Traditional Manufacturing

Companies in the automotive, aerospace, and other industries are already complementing their traditional manufacturing processes with additive processes. If a component is produced at a lower volume, costs more to assemble than it does to cast, and is made from materials that can be 3D printed, then it is a prime candidate for being produced with an additive manufacturing process.

Take, for example, General Electric (GE), a company that is making a big bet on additive manufacturing. GE’s Auburn, AL, manufacturing facility has dozens of additive machines running 24 hours a day, printing metal fuel injector nozzles for jet engines. Producing these fuel nozzles would normally require welding and brazing dozens of individual cast metal components.

BMW has been integrating additive manufacturing capabilities into its traditional manufacturing processes for over 25 years. BMW uses SLS with metals to produce low volume, complex parts for concept cars and prototype vehicles. The BMW i8 Roadster is the first commercial vehicle that features metal 3D-printed parts. In total, BMW manufactures over 100,000 parts using 3D printing.

As industry has embraced additive manufacturing, innovative companies have come up with new ways to make use of its capabilities that go beyond 3D printing finished parts. For example, additive manufacturing is being used to create precision tooling for use in traditional manufacturing processes. In products in which weight is a major factor, such as aircraft and automobiles, the lower weight of additively manufactured components provides cost and fuel savings over time.
uses inkjet additive manufacturing technology to 3D print PCBs.
Looking to the Future: Electronics

One area that still lags behind other industries in terms of automation and manufacturing innovation is PCB fabrication and assembly. This is where additive manufacturing becomes a game-changer. The layer-by-layer deposition process in inkjet additive manufacturing systems can be used to deposit multilayer PCBs for a variety of applications.

This significantly reduces development lead times while remaining cost effective compared to traditional prototyping and some traditional manufacturing of multilayer PCB fabrication, Traditional PCB manufacturing which requires dozens of etching, plating, and pressing steps to fabricate a single multilayer board while efficient at high volumes, is challenged by the timelines of quick turnaround orders..

Keeping an additive system for electronics in-house makes electronics engineers and designers much more agile throughout the R&D process. New designs can be produced in a matter of hours and tested immediately. Engineers won’t have to wait to receive prototypes from a short-run manufacturer and can immediately update their designs based on test results. The use of an additive system can also help reduce rework time during fabrication and delivery time by up to a month.

Because additive manufacturing systems are less constrained in the products they can be used to produce, these systems are allowing engineers and researchers to dream up new designs for electronics. Designers are no longer limited to creating rigid planar PCBs. The layer-by-layer process in 3D printing naturally allows designers to create non-planar electronics with unique form factors. Additive manufacturing also facilitates the integration of functionality on a single board.

Going forward, greater development of systems and materials for additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping of electronics will broaden their adoption and encourage integration with traditional manufacturing and assembly steps. One can naturally expect that these additive systems and processes will be integrated with pick-and-place machines and soldering machines to fully automate the manufacturing and assembly.

Electronics and PCB design are continuously evolving, and you’ll need the capabilities to keep up with new design, prototyping, and manufacturing methods.