Could 3D Printed Electronics Replace Printed Circuit Boards?

3D printing technology has been around for several years now, and many of us even have a 3D printer at home. But is it possible to 3D print entire electronic circuits onto the surface of various objects? The short answer is yes.

The long answer would have to explain how 3D printing electronics work, what technologies are already available for it, and its potential in the future of electronics manufacturing.

So, let’s discuss and learn more about 3D electronics and their benefits. Is it really possible that this technology could replace printed circuit boards (PCBs) in the not-so-distant future?

What Are 3D Electronics?

3D electronics can be made using different methods and technologies, but they all serve the same purpose: to directly print or embed electronic circuits on or into the surface of objects. The concept of 3D electronics isn’t new to electronics manufacturing. One example of current applications includes printing antennas on plastic objects. But we’re yet to see a technology that can 3D print a complete, complex electronic circuit on any surface.

Currently, we’re still dependent on PCBs for the actual manufacturing of electronics. But it has some limitations, mainly because PCBs are usually rigid and rectangular, and they require a fixed casing, so there isn’t much room for customization.

Now, if the circuits could instead be directly 3D printed on objects, it would eliminate the need for clunky PCBs and their casings. Instead, it would open up the ability to manufacture electronic components in any shape or size, making it much more versatile.

What Are the Current Technologies for 3D Printed Electronics?

Conductive inks as well thermoplastic filaments mixed with conductive additives already exist in the market. But 3D printing an electronic circuit is not as simple as loading a conductive ink into a 3D printer. For example, if a circuit needs to be embedded into an injection-molded plastic component, the process becomes more complex.

There are two primary technologies for 3D printing electronics: Laser Direct Structuring (LDS) and In-Mold Electronics (IME).

  • Laser Direct Structuring

In LDS, the thermoplastic material is fused with an additive element which gets activated by a laser. Then, when the laser runs over the surface of this material, it leaves a delicate pattern. Then with electroless plating (chemical plating), the pattern is metalized to serve as a conductive electronic circuit.

The benefit of LDS is that the overall process is fast and straightforward, and it’s a technology we’ve been using for years. But the disadvantage is that this method can only print a single layer pattern, so it can’t produce multi-layered, overlapping circuits.

  • In-Mold Electronics

In IME, the electronic circuit is first printed on a flat layer of thermoplastic using an adhesive conductive ink. The plastic layer is then thermoformed to any desired shape and finally filled with injection molding. It’s a relatively low-cost method and is best applied on devices with control panels or any Human-Machine Interface (HMIs), such as automobiles, washing machines, ovens, and most household appliances.

The biggest challenge for IME is that the conductive material used for the circuit must withstand the high temperature and pressure of the thermoforming and injection molding processes. There already are a few options for such materials (silver ink, for example), and further research is being conducted to develop more options that will be efficient and suitable for IME.

In Conclusion

It doesn’t take much brainstorming to see the benefits of 3D printed electronics over traditional PCBs. As devices are getting smaller (think hearing aids and USBs) and IoT implementation is increasing, it will eventually become necessary to manufacture complex and flexible circuits on objects of any shape. 3D electronics makes all of that possible, which is why it’s an exciting prospect for the future of electronics. And we, for one, can’t wait to see what doors it opens.

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