Apr.13, 2012

We'll be building circuit boards with 3D printers in few years, and it will not be too far away from now. Hobbyists are trying to produce simple circuit boards using a 3D printer to push the days coming earlier. Mechanical engineering student Rhys Jones Bath University, back in 2009, made his first 3D printed circuit by taking the old idea of depositing metal in channels. He's adapted the pinch-wheel extruder of the RepRap 3D printer to extrude ordinary solder through a thin tube with a nichrome heater wrapped round it. In 2011 he did an experiment by mixing the nickel with a low melting point alloy which would minimise damage to plastic components and also using a non-eutectic to attempt to minimise the effects of surface tension.

More recently he posted his new progress:

"Here is a stab at the Arduino compatible Sanguino board (albeit simplified). It's pretty standard except we've removed the reset circuitry and alot of the pins. We still have 4 controllable pins, one for the LED and three spare for something fun in future. Once again the plastic was printed before dropping in pre-tinned components and finally printing the metal tracks. I have previously done some tests which show we need to have a radius on each corners of printed tracks, ideally at least 1.5mm, but for compactness I squared these off resulting in poorer quality but nevertheless its quite a big step forward from where we were a few years ago. Four extra tracks are required on a second layer to get the circuit fully working; I've done this manually for the time being. In addition I had to manually solder in 2/3 pins as the track had not connected properly, however I think I can correct this by extending sections of track beyond their required endpoints and utilizing the bigger radii at corners that I've already mentioned. It's still a little blobby, but nevertheless here it is working running a simple blink program, although we can still reflash the chip to do something else with the spare pins. "

3D printing circuit boards is getting popular with home 3D printing enthusiasts. 3D printers will permit individuals with the requisite technical expertise to design electronics. Fab@Home, has presented their work they did with conductive and non-conductive silicone with internally embedded circuitry to print electrical circuits.

Back in March, Thingiverse user CarryTheWhat has uploaded his solder-free, 3D-printed circuit board library.

"The goal of this project is to enable the personal manufacturing of simple electronics, especially for Open Source Hardware -- with nothing except a 3D printer, your hands or equivalent, and the basic high-technology electronic components (capacitors, motors, transistors, etc -- but note that this will also include mass-produced microcontrollers and their shields!). Instead of solder, wires, and breadboards, OpenSCAD generates a peg-board PCB and component holder, and a circuit can be hand-wound together with conductive thread.

This code base is intended to replace conventional etched PCBs, initially for very simple applications. Included is a basic feature set, described in the Instructions. The pictures and uploaded STL files are for a simple circuit which demonstrates these features: a battery holder (I used 3 watch batteries instead of AAs to quickly and easily step up the voltage and save plastic and time), a momentary push-button, a toggle switch, and an LED holder."

Looking to the industrial realm, TNO, a Dutch research institute, did experiment with 3D printed circuit boards back in 2009. TNO has developed a new and more flexible manufacturing process by integrating the new FCBs (Flexible Circuit Boards) into their devices.

By using Laser Sintering and inkjet printing technology, conductive tracks can be printed onto laser sintered, thermoplastic substrates to produce high resolution, mass customisable conductive copper tracks. It printed electronic housing by unfolding the 3D box to a flat plane with all the necessary hinges and snap connections integrated and use laser sintering to produces the flat plane and then fold together into the 3D box. This process could could both reduce cost and boost the performance and functionality for end users.

Though all these are very far from being a scalable industrial process, 3D printing could be a great tool to allow designers to alter production process and furthermore in the near future to revolutionize how products are made.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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