When you think additive manufacturing, production of widgets, forms, and usually something mechanical comes to mind. But additive manufacturing may be used well in the design and fabrication of electronic parts, components, printed circuit boards (PCB), and other complex electronic circuitry.
Additive manufacturing machines can produce conductor, resistor, dielectric and semiconductor inks which can be processed to create both active and inert components. Shielding, antennas and sensors are just some of the types of electronic components which can be created.
Additively Manufactured Electronic (AME) devices is an emergent utility of 3D printing that affords great precision in executing complex designs in the creation of electronic designs. Such designs incorporate additive manufacturing by integrating electronic components such as coils, capacitors, integrated circuits, and printed circuit boards.
AME has benefitted from the evolution and advancement of dielectric inks - or inks that may be used as conductive mediums for circuitry. The inks may be layered to "print" circuitry and used in combination with other electronic components.
The long pole in the tent has been the availability of printing with substances that were never thought possible. Such stock includes silver which is ideal for electronic circuits. Because the process is additive, it's ideal for printed circuitry as it requires less actions such as drilling, and handling of the boards as sophisticated layering allows for complex and sophisticated designs.
Printed circuitry has, for some time now, already been on the track as "printed" using a lithography process. It has also been on track to layer different thicknesses of material to create tiny integrated circuits. Now, with additive processes in place, a host of possibilities enables boards and circuits to be printed that are not only easier to produce, but also more sophisticated and better performing.
The Rise of Self-Sufficiency
The use of additive manufacturing for electronics is becoming a viable solution to an impending problem: reliance on a supply chain that is largely offshore, with much concentration in Asia. With the pandemic, production was slowed in Asia, supply chain of imported goods was slowed, and manufactured found themselves in trouble, unable to boost supply to meet the demand for orders.
AME offers an alternative to sourced chips, boards and components that would otherwise come from these countries where supply has been strained. Though the AME fabrication process can be complex, more manufacturers can fabricate their own with a minimum of equipment and stock, without the transport and cost, and most importantly, at schedules that meet demand.
AME technology, however, is in its early adoption. It will take time for manufacturers to refine their fabrication practices and achieve the quality standards that are required. There's a bit of catching up to the traditional chip, PCB, and other electronic parts manufacturers. However, as they do, it can be a game changer and the perfect defense against supply chain strain from external sources and a complete shift to self-sufficiency.
Designing Circuitry for AME
As with mechanical and structural designs, engineer and electronic designers will have to find and tweak design software that will enable them to design for AME. Traditional design licenses for Dassault's SolidWorks as well as simulation software product such as Mathworks' MATLAB language and SIMULINK computing environment may be adopted. However, it will take time to be acclimate designing for AME using such software.
We can expect that within the next two years, AME will be more widely used and adopted not only by those who outsourced chips and printed circuit boards, but also those who designed and fabricated such products within North America.
Growing and Improving
As the technology is realized, there are firms emerging as leaders with this niche as a key part of its growth blueprint. Nano Dimension Ltd., a leader in AME, recently expanded its portfolio of AME capability with the acquisition of the firm DeepCube. Combined, the new company will be a powerhouse for what they call "AI powered-Additively Manufactured Electronics (AME)/PE (3D-Printed Electronics) platforms and services."
DeepCube brings its training platform and real-time inference engine to the design table. It will be integrated into Nano Dimension AME 3D-printers. They hope to make these "smart nodes" into "Smart Fabrication Networks (SFN). This will represent the consummate advancement of technology with the match of machine learning/deep learning, the vision of Industry 4.0, where, according to Nano Dimensions, "machines cooperate, learn, optimize and deliver printed electronics – is now achievable."
In totality, there's much reason to be excited by the dawn of AME and its continuous improvement and advancement. In its greatest potential, it could change the entire supply chain of complex electronic parts fabrication and availability. For engineers and 3D printing professionals, and all within this sector: watch this space.