Engineering 101

Insights on 3D Printed Electronics for Agile On-demand Manufacturing

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Efficient supply chains are one of the wonders of the modern world, with an iPhone requiring components from suppliers in over 40 countries. Production volumes throughout the supply chain usually based on sales predictions. If demand remains as expected, this works well, with little waste.

However, if consumer tastes or requirements suddenly change, if sales of a new product are a lot better or worse than expected, or if a particular part is needed unexpectedly in remote location or at very short notice, existing supply chains are a lot less efficient.

Unused components pile up, new components cannot be supplied quickly enough to meet demand (potentially delaying an entire production run), costs rise, and ultimately the potential purchaser ends up being disappointed.

On-demand manufacturing offers a solution. Rather than predicting what will be needed in advance and having a supply chain in place to meet those predictions, the idea is to manufacture in response to demand. This should reduce waste, enable companies to adapt to changing requirements in a more agile fashion, and facilitate greater customization.

3D printed electronics, here explored in detail, is an emerging technology that enables this new manufacturing paradigm. A detailed analysis of the entire 3D electronics space, including 3D molded interconnect devices (3D-MID) and in-mold electronics (IME), please see IDTechEx’s new report ‘3D Electronics 2020-2030: Technologies, Forecasts, Players’.

What is 3D Printed Electronics?

3D printing, in which a material is deposited layer by layer to build up a 3D object, is a relatively well-established technology. This material is often a thermoplastic, although 3D printing can also be applied to metals and ceramics. One of the main advantages is that specific products with unique specifications can be made to order, enabling cost effective production of bespoke parts and facilitating on-demand manufacturing.

Another advantage is that manufacturing is additive rather than subtractive, meaning that material waste is far less than other manufacturing technologies such as machining. 3D printing is covered in extensive detail in the recently updated IDTechEx report ‘3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing 2020-2030: COVID Edition’, which covers the impact of COVID-19 across the whole range of 3D printing applications.

3D printed electronics extends the concept of 3D printing to incorporate electronic circuits within a structural dielectric. The dielectric and conductive traces are deposited in each layer, with (in some cases) SMD components mounted within the 3D structure using (usually) conductive adhesive.

Passive components such as antennas and capacitors can also be incorporated with the structure along with curved vias and other geometries not compatible with conventional electronics manufacturing methods. The complexity of the functionality produced by 3D printed electronics is impressive, with Nano Dimension’s equipment capable of creating PCBs with up to 50 layers that can incorporate antennas and capacitors within the solid 3D structure.

There are essentially two manufacturing methodologies for 3D printed electronics: printing followed by curing, and stereolithography (SLA). The former has a higher readiness level with printers commercially available, but without parallelization (i.e. multiple nozzles) it is likely to have lower production speeds since SLA that uses light to selectively convert a liquid photopolymer to a rigid plastic rather than rastering a print head.

There are, however, some technical challenges, such as ensuring that objects comprising materials with very different thermal properties can withstand thermal cycling without breaking a connection. High yields are also critical, as one broken connection means the entire part is redundant since repairs are impossible for fully enclosed circuits.

For further technical analysis of the different approaches to 3D printed electronics, along with the technical challenges, please see IDTechEx’s new report ‘3D Electronics 2020-2030: Technologies, Forecasts, Players’.

3D Printed Electronics and Mass Customization

Henry Ford allegedly claimed that customers for his mass-produced Model T could have ‘any colour they like as long as it’s black’ since with conventional production methods lowering per unit costs requires large production runs of identical items.

However, this is not the case for 3D printed electronics (or indeed 3D printing in general). Because no moulds, masks or specific tooling are required, there is very little difference in cost (aside from adjustments to the input file) between producing 1000 different products and 1000 identical ones. This distinction in cost-volume profile from conventional manufacturing is demonstrated in the chart below.

As such, 3D printed electronics is ideally suited to prototyping, very small volume manufacturing small print runs. It is well suited to applications that require ‘mass customization’. Example applications where mass customization provides a tangible value proposition are medical devices such as prosthetics and (ultimately) hearing aids. As 3D printed electronics move from prototyping to production these applications are likely to be amongst the first to be addressed.

Distributed Manufacturing

Since 3D printed electronics (and 3D printing in general) removes many of the economies of scale, it reduces the advantages of consolidating production in a factory. This has led some to suggest a different model: distributed manufacturing.

As the name suggests, this involves manufacturing in multiple small locations that can be located closer to the ultimate destination for their products. Although they are separate ideas, distributed and on-demand manufacturing are often used together to describe a supply chain approach of local manufacturing in response to specific demands.

Advantages of distributed manufacturing include reduced distribution time and cost since products can be manufactured close to their final location. Furthermore, without long term investment in large facilities that are tied to specific purpose, the manufacturing supply chain is made more agile.

Another advantage, especially pertinent given the disruption caused by COVID-19, is that distributing manufacturing around multiple locations (and even independent suppliers) reduces the risk of production line failure or supply chain disruption. This distributed, small scale manufacturing also means that production easily be started at a new location to take advantage of excess capacity (even if that facility was previously making a different item), potentially reducing costs.

Of course, distributed manufacturing is not applicable to everything. The biggest challenge is competing with existing manufacturing and supply chains that have evolved over decades to become incredibly efficient. In IDTechEx’s view this is likely impossible for high volumes, in which the time and cost advantages of batch production (especially injection molding) outweigh the benefits from on-demand manufacturing. Another challenge is distribution, since long distance transport is at present far cheaper than last mile delivery. The cost of distributing supplies to multiple distributed locations may offset the advantages of manufacturing close to the final location.

Case study: 3D Printed Electronics in Forward Operating Bases

The US Army are testing the ‘on-demand’ manufacturing concept by deploying a ruggedized nScyrpt 3D electronics printer in forward operating bases. The attraction of being able to print replacement electronic circuits and parts in scenarios where logistics are challenging is obvious, making 3D printed electronics in military/disaster relief/remote locations a promising if relatively niche application.

Comprehensive Technical and Commercial Analysis

The IDTechEx report ‘3D Electronics 2020-2030: Technologies, Forecasts, Players’ discusses each approach to 3D electronics in considerable detail, evaluating the different technologies, their potential adoption barriers and their applicability to the different application areas. The report includes multiple company profiles based on interviews with major players across the different technologies, along with case studies.

IDTechEx also develop ten-year market forecasts for each technology and application sector, delineated by both revenue and area. The most substantial growth is predicted for in-mold electronics (IME), which despite a somewhat lengthy development process appears to be on the verge of widespread adoption in car interiors and consumer goods control panels.

3D printed electronics is also expected to grow, developing from prototyping to small volume production of a wider range of items as production speed, capability and manufacturing yield improve.

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