In the years since 3D printing really emerged as a viable technology, we’ve seen it applied to all sorts of different projects and purposes. Often enough, it’s the fun stuff that tends to make headlines: printing character figurines, turning digital sculptures into real ones, and so on. But 3D printing has also been put to excellent use in industries: prototyping construction projects, fabricating medical equipment, and as noted in our write-up asking ‘Should Designers and Developers Take Note of 3D Printing’, PCB design.
For those who might not be aware of the term, PCBs are printed circuit boards. They are small pieces of hardware, intricately designed with different components that receive and transmit electronic signals within our devices. PCBs are at the core of so many of the electronic items we rely on today, and in the past they’ve been the products of fairly ordinary manufacturing processes. Now however, we are beginning to hear more about functioning PCBs being produced via 3D printing.
This matters for a few important reasons:
Keeping Up with Digital Design
To some extent, 3D printing increasingly appears to be a necessity if manufacturing is to keep up with the complexity of PCB design. Altium’s feature on 3D measuring in PCB design makes clear that today, the software that goes into the rendering of these projects allows for great intricacy and complexity. In order to match the needs of today’s electronics, PCBs are designed with multiple layers, stacked components, and far more connections than in the past. Now, it is still possible to take a 3D design such as this and produce it as a functioning PCB by traditional means. But 3D printing simplifies the process of turning a complex, modern rendering into a real object. It should, in short, help manufacturing to keep up with design.
In the early days of 3D printing, it was for the most part quite slow. But things have gradually improved in this regard. In 2017, a “lightning-fast” desktop printer from MIT set a new bar for even personal printing projects to accomplish tasks with much more speed than we were used to. Since then, we’ve seen commercial printing improve on this front as well; there are even some examples of massive printers producing pieces of homes and buildings with remarkable speed (compared to ordinary construction at least). Given the sheer prevalence of devices that need PCBs, this ever-improving speed is another important factor. In time if not already, 3D printing will be able to produce inventory to meet circuit board orders with greater efficiency than ordinary manufacturing.
The Devices on the Way
There are countless uses for PCBs already. It is worth noting however that some of the most consistent demands are in consumer electronics, and this is a field that is always evolving. Even as we write this piece, there is talk of Apple employing a new kind of PCB in its forthcoming iPhone 13, and there are new microLED smart glasses from Vuzix that likely signal the beginning of a whole new era of electronic glasses. Examples like these don’t just mean that more PCBs need to be produced. Rather, they mean that new PCBs need to be designed. 3D printing can be of immense assistance in this regard, simplifying the process of trial and error in design and allowing engineers to be all the more ambitious and innovative in their attempts.
Given all of this, it is safe to say we can add PCB design to the practices benefiting from 3D printing in a major way. It is a virtual given that we’ll continue to see invention and improvement in circuit boards in the coming years, and we believe this will be in part thanks to the impact of printing technology.
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