3D PCB Printing – What does the future hold?

3dprinterAlthough it might seem as though 3D printing has been a recent revelation, its foundations can be dated back to the early 1980s. This is when people started experimenting with printing materials through the same inkjet process as is used to print ink.

In basic terms, 3D printing is a way of creating 3D objects from a digital file by printing layers of material onto each other and using lasers to solidify the materials as they are printed.

Many industries have researched ways in which 3D printing can help them and we now have the ability to print prosthetic limbs, cars and even jewellery. However, it wasn’t until recently that engineers realised the possibility of printing entire PCBs.

3D printing PCBs uses the same inkjet process as mentioned before. One chemical is printed and another is then printed on top of that, the two chemicals, which are in liquid form, react and this creates the silver precipitate.

A range of experiments, from a variety of companies, have enabled PCBs to be printed onto kapton and acrylic plastics, as well as paper, fabric and even stickers. A digital file is sent to the printer and the PCB can then be printed out there and then.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the process of printing PCBs is the ability to print the components straight onto the board itself. This means that the components no longer need to be placed or soldered onto the board, which has the potential to increase throughput rates and therefore reduce production times significantly. The printing of components is done in a similar way but using different ink compounds.

As simple as this may sound, it hasn’t been easy journey to realising 3D-PCB printing. Many challenges have been posed along the way. However, the advent of 3D PCB printing process has also been able to bypass many of the challenges that faced current traditional assembly methods, including:

  • How would it be possible to pick the electronic parts up and place them down accurately? – Normally a vacuum is used for this, but it is not always viable due to the changing size of objects, which could be anything from 01005 to 80mm
  • How could the parts be soldered? – Something was needed to dispense the solder paste.
  • How can you manage the static discharge created from plastic and acrylic parts, which can kill semiconductor components? Again anti-static environments were put in place to overcome this.

So what remains to be considered and perhaps one of the biggest questions of all is, if 3D PCB printing is able to avoid many of the challenges that traditional assembly methods have had to counter when being developed, will it be able to deliver a commercially viable product far more cost-effectively?

A number of companies have now started to produce 3D PCB printers that don’t cost the earth. What is more, the technology is constantly evolving, which provokes the question, are we experiencing a fundamental shift in the CEM industry, which will alter the nature of assembly services for good? Only time will tell.