Among manufacturers, there is a common perception that the more complicated the concept, the longer it takes to produce a market-ready functional object. This is especially relevant for the highly competitive electronics industry, where product complexity is continuously increasing and improved time-to-market is a primary business objective. It all starts with the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) and electronics design and development companies’ need for shorter, more agile and efficient product development cycles.
Most of today’s PCB prototypes are produced by traditional subtractive manufacturing methods, often by overseas vendors—most often located in Asia. Producing the PCB is a tedious multistage process, including milling, drilling, film transfer, and plating machines; copper etching baths; and a press. Standard turnaround times are generally two to three weeks, although circuit prototypes can often be produced in less time for a substantial urgency fee.
An even greater challenge is when design complexity rises, as in the creation of professional multilayer prototype boards needed to create ground-breaking new applications and electronic products. A tiny mistake in design, resulting in a poor circuit, could lead to risky product recalls and other quality problems. To avoid costly mistakes of this kind, there is usually a need for proof-of-concept, design validations, and other interim steps en route to a final full-board prototype. This means that even after the PCB prototype has been produced and tested, problems are often discovered and designs need to be updated, further increasing the lead time and cost for each PCB, making iterative design and testing virtually impossible.
In addition, sending valuable intellectual property to an overseas supplier is a major concern for many companies, especially in the defense industry. To minimize the risk of confidential IP falling into the wrong hands, companies that make products with national security considerations often only work with service providers with the required level of security clearance. In many cases, this adds considerably to both the costs and delivery time.
3D is the Answer
Over the last few years, advanced 3D printing technologies are making it possible to bring prototyping in-house. While not all solutions are alike, many of these companies share a concurrent core of development and business goals to justify the cost of their 3D printing endeavors. These include shortening overall development time and reduced product development cost by enabling teams to work simultaneously on all design projects—maximizing resource utilization and improving overall productivity. In addition, 3D printing is enabling improved design quality and innovation by allowing a more iterative design process, including changes on-the-fly and quick turnaround development, even for the most complex designs.
While 3D printing is an accepted technology across a wide range of industries, one area of huge potential that has only recently started to draw attention is the combination of 3D printing and electronics. Imagine creating a 3D PCB prototype by simply loading a design file straight to a 3D printer. The next day, you have a PCB prototype that can be tested. This can open the door to innovative new possibilities such as the ability to print functional parts. This capability increases opportunities for complexity far beyond the reach of traditional design and manufacturing processes to develop smarter and more functional end-use products. For example, removing geometry barriers and integrating printed electronics into 3D structures can result in new enhanced functionality and solutions.
The potential for using 3D-printed electronics for rapid prototyping is immediately apparent, but the benefits go far beyond the early prototyping stages when you just need a quick prototype to figure out if your idea works. Using 3D-printed electronics technologies can help improve the outcomes of all design and pre-production processes to make accurate and fast decisions for proof of concept, design validation, agile hardware development, and even low volume production, in our fast-paced, competitive world.
Early stage proof-of-concept circuits are the first step towards demonstrating feasibility to reach the product design solution faster. The goal is to use in-house 3D-printed electronics technologies to create a proof-of-concept fully functional prototype overnight (instead of weeks), and even have the time to conduct multiple iterations of other prototype designs. This is ideal for presenting new ideas to key stakeholders, to quickly determine if the concept idea is technically feasible, and if there are areas for improvement very early in the design process.
3D-printed electronics also can be used for early and accurate design validation to test if a design performs to its goals and specifications and pinpoint critical issues early on in the design cycle. With 3D-printed electronics, engineers can create functional circuits that incorporate conductive and dielectric materials with very fast turnaround, making it possible for engineers to compare several circuit designs really quickly, working efficiently and accurately until they validate the best PCB design. In addition, 3D-printed electronics fosters a design and engineering culture of fast and frequent design iterations, with the potential to test and receive feedback quickly, resulting in better products.
Things can get even more interesting when 3D-printed electronics is used for agile hardware electronics development. This means that design teams can get a comprehensive and intuitive review of the product at the end of each phase to save time, money, and improve the product. This is especially important in hardware electronics development, where traditional manufacturing techniques have meant that lead times are too lengthy and expensive to apply numerous design iterations. The ability to create multiple iterations not only helps improve development cycle times but also helps reveal potential flaws earlier. With a 3D printer for electronics the turn-around time of producing circuit prototypes for release at the end of each phase is quick—depending on the design, size, and complexity—but independent of internal bureaucracy and external factors.
Bringing PCB Prototyping In-house
Manufacturing advances are enabling companies to bring rapid prototyping in-house to speed design. For instance, Germany-based PHYTEC, a supplier of cutting-edge solutions for the industrial embedded market, has in the past year invested in PCB 3D printers and brought the production of complex PCB prototypes in-house. PHYTEC uses these prototypes to help its business-to-business customers in designing new and improved products. This is a crucial technology for PHYTEC for iterative technology design, to enable agile hardware methodologies, generate time-savings, and give customers a competitive edge. This enables PHYTEC to perform functional testing and quickly finalize the concept design in the early stages of development, effectively meeting customer’s needs. Errors can be immediately detected and eliminated. The result is increased quality of design, faster designs, and shorter design cycles—from months or weeks to days.
“It takes us 12-18 hours depending on the size and complexity of a board to print a PCB, this is easily 10 to 15 times faster than ordering PCBs the traditional way. So within one working day, our production facility gets access to the first new PCB of a new design,” says Bodo Huber, Chief Technology Officer, PHYTEC.
3D-printed electronics is still an emerging technology poised for endless application possibilities. The results will be seen in the evolution of electronics from rigid boards to products that are flexible, conformal, and even wearable with embedded components.