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In 2018, I predicted that “2019 will see electrified geometries with embedded electronics. After all, there’s no reason that rapid-printed metal and plastic parts shouldn’t also be connected and smart…3D-printed electronics can lower traditional design and development processes from days to hours and in many instances become the manufacturing platform of choice.”
And indeed, a report released by IDTechEx this year projects that the rapidly-expanding market for 3D printed electronics will grow to over $2 billion by 2029. Industry players are forming partnerships and collaborations. For example, Nano Dimension recently announced a partnership with the Harris Corporation, a global aerospace and defense technology innovator, to conduct a systematic analysis of 3D printed materials for radio frequency (RF) space systems, especially for Nano-satellites. The ultimate goal is to use 3D printed circuits as a cost-effective and robust option for developing hardware that will fly on the International Space Station (ISS) and communicate with Harris’ ground based satellite tracking station in Florida.
3D electronics printing is the next step in the evolution of traditional additive manufacturing, which uses primarily plastic and metal substrates to create products.
3D printed electronics are created by multi-material 3D printing – which simultaneously uses electronically conductive and isolating materials within one print process – and is thus able to incorporate functional electronic elements into print jobs.
The use cases today are nearly infinite: 3D printed electronics can include functioning circuit boards, non-planar circuits, sensors, antennas and nearly any other electronic elements today produced by traditional methods. Simply put, 3D electronics printing offers a faster and more cost-effective solution to PCB/electronic product development and in some instances serial production.
And what can 3D printed electronics be used for? Anything regular electronics are used for, to start with. Nano Dimension has produced a fully functional, 3D printed IoT communication device, along with capacitors in PCBs and side mount boards – all of which can potentially save manufacturers valuable space and weight in ever-shrinking electronics designs.
3D printed electronics are also ideal for R&D. Using 3D electronics printing, researchers can test new designs far faster – producing prototypes overnight that would take 8-12 weeks via outsourcing – while still retaining confidential information in-house.
As sensors are embedded into more and more devices, we are headed into a trillion-sensor marketplace. Ever greater pressure on companies to electrify products and embed sensors translates into manufacturing and financial challenges – especially for smaller-scale product runs. It is here that 3D printed electronics will ultimately be the rule and not the exception.
Moreover, 3D printed circuit boards can create vast new opportunities to embed electronics by design. They can also enable engineers to route traces in 3D, including trace diameter. 3D printed electronics enable more conformal features that can optimize RF signal, conceal antennas, or simply keep design more compact. By blurring the line between board and housing – between electronic functionality and aesthetic design – 3D printed circuits will open new doors in electromechanical design.
Finally, by reducing part counts and combining electrical and mechanical functionality, 3D printed electronics will disrupt value-chains while producing parts of greater strength, greater complexity, and greater functional value.