The Ability to 3D Print Electronics Is Here

Mark Shortt, Editorial Director

When you think about the innovation that’s happening today in the field of electronics, there’s a lot to wrap your head around as people debate the future of Moore’s Law, the fate of silicon transistors and possible role of carbon nanotube chips, and materials that could, possibly, widen the application range of flexible, conformal electronics.

One look at the nine manufacturing innovation institutes that are part of the national Manufacturing USA network (formerly the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation) gives you a pretty good idea of the impact that electronics will have in furthering the development and adoption of emerging manufacturing technologies and innovative products.

PowerAmerica, one of the nine manufacturing innovation institutes, is working to develop advanced manufacturing processes that will enable large-scale production of wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors, which allow electronic components to be smaller, faster, and more efficient than they would be if the semiconductors were made from silicon. At the same time, NextFlex, America’s first Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) Manufacturing Innovation Institute, is working to support the advancement of technologies and materials that will bring flexible, stretchable body-worn electronics into the mainstream. Two others—America Makes, dedicated to strengthening capabilities in 3D printing, and the new Advanced Functional Fabrics of America—are working in areas where new developments and breakthroughs will impact how electronics are manufactured and applied to next-generation products.

We’re living in a digital age in which collaboration helps further not only the development of new technologies, but also their interdependence across a wide spectrum of industries. So it’s not surprising, then, that we’re seeing some of the more intriguing developments in electronics today happening as a result of applying breakthroughs in materials, 3D printing, and software. These developments, whether they’re highly conductive silver inks for 3D printing, or better ways of integrating electronics into stretchable polymer fabrics, are changing the ways we manufacture electronics and how we incorporate them into more functional parts, components, and products.

One of these breakthroughs is the development of innovative 3D printing technologies that offer new ways to manufacture electronics. These direct-write methods are barely beginning to scratch the surface of their potential impact, but are enabling designers and engineers to functionalize a wide variety parts, surfaces, and objects with embedded electronics. They’re empowering designers to design electronics to fit the part, rather than designing the part around the electronics.

Benefits of these technologies range from reducing the number of materials and manufacturing steps required, to the ability to print functional circuits, sensors, interconnects, and antennas on non-planar (non-flat), irregular, and complex surfaces that were never able to be functionalized for electronic purposes before. As a result, innumerable mechanical parts, finished products, and structures can be transformed to function with electronic capabilities that help improve knowledge of how they’re faring out in the field. Functioning as part of a network, they can sense, collect, and transmit information that helps manufacturers quickly respond to changes in user demand, or predict when they will wear out and fail. The burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT), or Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), figures to only increase the demand for these technologies.

One of these direct-write 3D printing technologies, when used at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, reportedly opened the door for creating miniature circuits on surfaces and substances that couldn’t be used before. The technology reportedly allowed engineers to manufacture conductors, semiconductors, and microcircuits “with an intricacy and flexibility not possible with the Lab’s previous technology” and to make electronics that were not only flat, but curved.

The benefits made possible by the ability to 3D print electronics raise some important questions for product designers and engineers.  You may be familiar with parts and products that could be improved with electronic capabilities. How would you like to functionalize any of these products? What new capabilities would you like to give them? What advantages might 3D printing of electronic components offer over your current manufacturing methods and supply chain logistics?

Sources tell D2P that a series of leading edge companies are adopting direct-write 3D printing technologies that are capable of manufacturing electronics in ways that enable customization and scale-up into production quantities. Now is a good time to learn more about their capabilities and investigate their costs and benefits for your operation.

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