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3D Printed PCB: The New Way of Making Circuit Boards

The PCB industry has seen various changes in recent years. One of them is the emergence of the 3D-printed PCB. This innovative way of fabricating circuit boards promises many benefits, such as complex designs and reduced manufacturing costs. Join us as we explore the technology of 3D printing circuit boards in this comprehensive guide.

Can You 3D Print Circuit Boards?

Yes, you can. Printed circuits are traditionally manufactured by etching copper-layered substrates and creating conductive paths called traces. Today, you can also 3D print them. This technology is not to be confused with a 3-dimensional structure.

3D printing is an additive manufacturing method where a nozzle deposits semi-solid material or a high-power laser melts particles to create a desired part. To 3D-print electronic circuits, you need a machine called a 3D printer.

A 3D-printed PCB board offers several advantages, from cost reduction to design flexibility. That explains why the technology is quickly gaining popularity. You can also use it to make virtually any type of board: single sides, double-sided, multilayer, flexible, etc.

DIY 3D printed PCB circuit boards
DIY 3D printed PCB circuit boards
Resource: https://youtu.be/QRlDGPiPdvw?si=KHC64vZZKvPqIa8G

3D Printed PCB Advantages and Disadvantages

The technology of 3D printing PCBs is quickly gaining traction. Its popularity stems from its many benefits. But there are also downsides that you must be aware of before choosing the method for your project. Let’s start with the benefits.

Advantages

  • It doesn’t produce much waste, unlike the traditional, subtractive process that requires etching the substrate.
  • You can use it to create complex geometries, which is advantageous when manufacturing custom boards.
  • It uses fewer steps than traditional manufacturing, making it ideal for prototyping circuit boards before full production.
  • It’s an economical way of producing circuit boards for small projects with limited budgets and low production runs or DIY projects.

Disadvantages

  • It’s relatively slow, especially when it involves building the board layers one at a time using a filament.
  • You have access to fewer materials when 3D-printing circuit boards than when manufacturing them the usual way.
  • It creates less precise conductive paths or traces, making high-resolution patterns a challenge to produce.
 Printing a PCB with a 3D printer
Printing a PCB with a 3D printer
Resource: https://www.elektormagazine.com

Methods of 3D Printing PCBs

There are various methods of 3D printing PCBs. Each method uses a different technique to produce the conductive pattern or traces. They include the following.

Jet Printing

It involves spraying conductive ink onto the substrate to create a pattern of traces and may use different techniques: inkjet and aerosol jet. They differ in the way the printer sprays the ink.

In inkjet printing, the printer sprays the conductive ink in droplet form, tracing the required pattern. Curing the ink leaves the conductive traces intact and ready to connect components.

Aerosol jet has the ink sprayed in mist form. This method results in tiny pathways of conductive materials. After drying, the ink reveals the board’s trace pattern.

Fused Deposition Modeling

In this method, the 3D PCB printer uses a thermoplastic material (in a form called filament) to build the board layers. It heats the plastic filament before extruding it through a nozzle to create the circuit traces.

The FDM method is the most popular way of 3D printing PCBs. It’s relatively inexpensive. However, it produces low-resolution traces, making it great for prototyping and other noncommercial projects.

Laser Printing

High-power lasers melt tiny particles to produce the desired circuit board design. The particles can be different materials, including metal, glass, ceramic, and plastic.

Sometimes, the laser directly forms the PCB in a layer of photosensitive material. Using this method, 3D-printed circuit board companies create patterns with high accuracy. This laser technique is called DLW, or direct laser writing.

Although relatively slow, DLW creates complex designs with fine circuit traces. It makes an excellent method for prototyping or educational purposes.

3D-printed electronic circuits on a PCB
3D-printed electronic circuits on a PCB
Resource: https://www.eenewseurope.com

3D Printed PCB vs. Traditionally Manufactured PCB

What’s different between 3D-printed PCB boards and traditionally produced types? A few things distinguish the two.

  • The 3D printed types use different materials than traditional boards. The materials include thermoplastic, conductive ink, and metal powders.
  • The conventional board has limited design possibilities, unlike the 3D printed types that can be complex geometries.
  • The conventional circuit board has better mechanical properties, and you can use it in harsher conditions
  • 3D printed boards are less costly. They use fewer steps to make
  • 3D printing circuit boards is a slow process. As a result, they are not the best choice for large projects or higher production runs.
3D printing PCB board traces (DIY)
3D printing PCB board traces (DIY)
Resource: https://youtu.be/QOOAXWyt8Fg?si=p4JEbsUQ5kv9H9Bm

Potential Applications of 3D Printed PCB Boards

Given its various advantages over the traditional board, 3D printed PCB boards find applications in many projects (commercial or noncommercial). Popular ones include the following:

  • They are ideal for prototyping due to the reduced costs and fewer tooling requirements.
  • They suit low-volume projects that do not require complex processes to implement.
  • You can use 3D-printed PCB circuit boards if your project requires complex designs that normal manufacturing may not possibly produce.
  • Because of the reduced costs and design flexibility, 3D-printed boards are ideal for education.
  • You can also use the technology to produce circuit boards for general use, such as PCBs for electronic devices and other applications.
High-density 3D printed PCB board
High-density 3D printed PCB board
Resource: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLcdm6gB6eE

What is the Future of PCB 3D Printing?

3D printing is currently developing. Researchers are finding new ways to produce parts using the techniques and new materials that will work best when using the technology.

The continued innovation will, without a doubt, change how we produce PCBs. We’ll likely see them become better with higher resolution trace patterns and built using higher quality materials like graphene ink.

That will, in turn, lead to increased application of 3D printed PCB boards in different industries, including those that involve exposure to harsh environments. In a nutshell, the technology will get better and better.

Conclusion

3D-printed PCB circuit boards are revolutionizing the production of electronic circuits for use in various industries. They are cheaper to make and easy to fabricate in complex designs and shapes. As the technology continues to grow, we are likely to see the printing speed improve. Better materials with higher mechanical properties and manufacturability will also emerge.

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