3D printed electronics

Until quite recently, printed electronics and 3D printing, besides the “print” word, had very little in common. Now, companies such as Nano Dimension that are combining both technologies are in a good position to change rules of how supply chains of electronic parts do work, as well as how our smartphones, VR headsets and wearables will someday be shaped and how much they will cost.

Basically, printed circuit boards (PCBs) are the building blocks and the electronic infrastructure of any electronic device: a laptop, tablet, washing machine and dishwasher, to name just a few. This is the element where electronic components are mounted to. A green PCB that we can find in a smartphone may consist of 14 or 16 of separated layers. Some points are connected to each other in such a way that eventually you get a big area of wiring in a very small card.

The way PCBs are produced hasn’t profoundly changed for decades. Generally speaking, the production starts with a plate covered in copper. Then a manufacturer takes away copper they don’t need. The process is called chemical etching. Unfortunately, this method means a lot of waste and environmental damage.

Some printed circuit boards are manufactured in Europe and the United States, but most of them are produced in China and Taiwan. Even prototypes of multilayer PCBs are manufactured in Asia. Many Western electronic companies create their Gerber files (digital files that PCB designers use), send them to a factory located in the Far East, and wait until they get prototypes to start testing them. The process of production and a delivery may take a couple of weeks.

DragonFly 2020 may change this time-consuming procedure. The new 3D printed electronics printer is able to make industrial grade prototypes of PCBs in-house in a matter of hours. Nano Dimension’s printer create multilayer printed circuit boards with ten or more layers, including all interconnections between layers, using a patented process.

Nano Dimension DragonFly 2020 PCB
In order to build a complete multilayer PCB from the bottom up, the DragonFly 2020 printer deposits two materials: one conductive (the company’s nano-silver ink; in the future it will be made with nano-copper ink) and one dielectric polymer. The build volume is 20 x 20 x 0,3 cm, and the printing accuracy is 0,01 mm.

Beyond allowing device manufacturers to prototype much faster, the DragonFly 2020 printer is useful for businesses that want to keep their Intellectual Property secret. Companies that work in a defence or any other sensitive systems are fully aware that they shouldn’t send Gerber files abroad.

Watch the video interview with Simon Fried from Nano Dimension recorded at CES 2016 in Las Vegas to learn more about 3D printed electronics as well as the DragonFly 2020 printer. If you are familiar with basics of 2D printed electronics, please skip the introduction and start watching the video at 3’30.


Why does it really matter?

The DragonFly 2020 printer is intended to be used for rapid prototyping of PCBs and small batch production of professional multilayer PCBs, but the implications could be far more revolutionary. Potentially, it can disrupt over several years the way consumer electronics are made and distributed. Low-cost factories in Asia, as well as anyone in the electronic devices business, should carefully observe this emerging trend (and maybe start to fear a little bit).

If 3D printed electronics printing technology gets cheap enough, this could spell the beginning of the end of China as the world’s manufacturer of electronics, and probably start bringing back local production to the West.

From a consumer point of view, the change may be visible in terms of shapes of the next generation of electronics. At present, smartphones, laptops, as well as some parts of wearables and many other electronics are in the shape of rectangles. The reason is that all these devices are designed around the shape of PCBs manufactured accordingly to the standard method. With a 3D printed electronics printer, it will be possible to make a circuit that could be any complex geometries, even in the shape of a pyramid or sphere.

The goal is that one day 3D printed multilayer PCBs will be flexible, geometrically complex, full 3D dimensional and fully functional objects. That sounds perfect for the world of bendable wearables and IoT.

First DragonFly 2020 printer will be rolled out in the second half of 2016. Flextronics International Ltd. will serve as the primary manufacturer and supplier of the printer. The price of the device was not announced yet, but for sure it will not be suited to a typical home user – the printer is aimed at electronics companies. Nano Dimension also plans to launch nanotechnology-based ink products – RFID and solar are their initial markets.

Nano Dimension was founded in Israel in 2012 by Sharon Fima, Amit Dror, Simon Fried and Dagi Ben-Noon. Nano Dimension is listed as NNDM on the Tel Aviv stock exchange, and is traded as an ADR on the OTCQX in the United States (NNDMY). If you have any questions regarding Nano Dimension, you can send them directly to CMO of the company, Simon Fried at simon@nano-di.com.


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