Additive Manufacturing in the Electronics Industry

Although the technology for additive manufacturing has been around for much longer than many people realise, it’s an industry which is still relatively in its infancy.

Additive manufacturing is now being used in a number of different industries, including aerospace, automotive and the field of medicine.

Metal printing is one of the most common applications, but it’s a material that’s not suitable for home use at present, only being available in commercial applications. Other materials that use 3D printing technology but are more suitable for combined use, both on a 3D printer at home or on a larger commercial machine in industry include polymers and plastics.

But additive manufacturing isn’t just able to produce inert parts; there’s a range of functional components which can also be easily created, including electronics.

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How are Electronics Created?

Like other areas of additive manufacturing, the technology to create electronic circuits via additive manufacturing has been around for some time but it’s only really been taken advantage of more recently to a greater degree.

3D printing of an electronic circuit

3D printing of an electronic circuit

Electronic circuits or components can be created with the assistance of a very special type of printer, where the substrate which is directed through the nozzles contains conductive ink. Being built up in minuscule lasers in the same way as other types of additive manufacturing, complex electronic parts can be created far more quickly.

There are now 3d printers which can not only print conductive ink, but also extrude polymers and other plastics, creating some of the first multi-material printers available on the market.

Why use Additive Printing?

There’s little point using new technology for the sake of it, and with efficient processes already in place for creating electronics, it’s worth considering whether additive manufacturing really offers anything different.

One of the most beneficial reasons to contemplate using additive manufacturing processes rather than conventional engineering is the ability to create electronic circuits in very small spaces.

Technology such as mobile phones has become microscopic in recent years and being able to print directly onto 3D surfaces has made this possible. Rather than having to include separate circuit boards, wiring and cabling, the assembly process is vastly reduced and the overall weight lowered too.

It’s not just consumer products where additive printing of electronics can be used; it’s also present in a number of different industries. Additive manufacturing machines can produce conductor, resistor, dielectric and semiconductor inks which can be processed to create both active and inert components.

Shielding, antennas and sensors are just some of the types of electronic components which can be created.

Combining additive manufacturing in both the aerospace and electronics industries provides some very advantageous technology, including the ability to print directly onto the wing of unmanned aerial vehicles, creating a lighter and more streamlined design. These aerodynamic qualities shouldn’t be underestimated either, as in the past protruding antenna could have a very detrimental effect on the overall design’s performance.

The Advantages

Using additive manufacturing has a number of advantages, which apply just as much to the field of electronics as to other industries.

Some benefits apply possibly more to electronics than to other areas, because of the relative ease in which electronic components can be printed. Because electronic parts can be constructed using a range of specialised inks, rather than industrial materials such as metal powders and binders, it’s far easier to have a printer for the purpose of 3D printing.

This means that there’s a far lesser need to buy and store parts in advance in anticipation of some possible future need. The ability to print out 3D electronic components as and when needed means resources can be far more flexibly used.

Being able to respond to demand rather than stockpile components is a far more economical way to work, but that’s not the only financial benefit. Compared to conventional engineering techniques, there’s far less wastage as any materials in the printer left unused can simply be utilised on the next project. Conventional manufacturing techniques can result in up to 90% wastage of materials.

Additive manufacturing also requires less human input; this saves on money as only quick periodic checks are required to ensure all is on track. This means costly errors are also eliminated as a possibility.

And of course, being able to create a truly innovative product, and get it to market quickly carries its own advantages. Additive manufacturing is rapid and allows a fast turnover of a new concept, sidestepping the lengthy process than a more conventional design would take to produce.

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