Davide Sher is an Italian journalist specialized in 3D printing. He travels the world to investigate the industry’s best stories and shares his views in a monthly column on Aniwaa.
Today 3D printing is used mostly as part of a series of manufacturing processes to speed up and optimize a product’s qualities. However there is no doubt that the great fascination that 3D printing exerts on most of us it the idea of a single manufacturing process enabling the production of complete and functional end-use products. The key to achieve this is embedded 3D printed electronics and it’s coming.
Useful resource: check out all the existing 3D printers for 3D printing electronics
The approaches to 3D printed electronics are almost as varied as 3D printing itself. In fact the most advanced and probably the most proficient way to do it is through different evolutions of inkjet technology in the professional 3D printing arena. This technology was developed first by Objet (today part of Stratasys) and later by 3D Systems (as MJP) for embedded 3D printed electronics. Inkjet technologies offers two main advantages: one is that it is one of the few that is capable of highly precise multimaterial 3D printing. The other is that it is an inkjet printing process, the same process by which – today – nanoparticle metal inks (mostly in silver) are being used for electronics 2D printing applications.
INKJETTING CONDUCTIVE MATERIALS
Three companies are experimenting heavily with inkjetting conductive materials into 3D prints. It is no coincidence that these technologies come from Israel since this is where polyjet technology was invented, as an evolution of 2D digital inked printing. They all take different approaches, which are defining how 3D printed electronics will make it to the market.
1. PV NanoCell
The first company, whose project is likely to have the biggest impact, is an Israeli startup called PV NanoCell. Founded by CEO Fernando de la Vega, the company began operating in the field of printable solar cells and has now moved into copper and silver single crystal nano-metric conductive inks, based on its exclusive dispersion technology. According to unofficial information, the company is now working with a major 3D printer manufacturer to integrate its conductive inks into 3D printed products in a single process, even for mass production.
2. Nano Dimension
The second player is another Israeli company called Nano Dimension and focusing on all-in-one, modular electronic products.
Nano Dimension, which was recently listed on the NASDAQ index has build the DragonFly 2020 PCB 3D printer, which uses its own silver nano inks to produce complete prototypes of printed control boards (PCB’s) in one single, cost-effective process.
Note: a PCB is an electronic control board that works as the “nervous system” of basic robotic and electronic devices.
3. Nascent Objects
One more company that is using a proprietary approach to apply electronics onto 3D printed objects is Nascent Objects. Nascent Objects is a pioneer in the promising field of modular consumer electronics. Led by CEO Baback Elmieh, the company has developed a way to apply conductive components to parts 3D printed by almost any technology. In particular they used EnvisionTEC’s 3SP 3D printers to build electronic modules which can be used to power several different types of modular products. These include speakers, webcams and even drones or toys which all use the same electronic module.
CONDUCTIVE 3D FILAMENTS
Although some argue that conductive filaments are unnecessary (as wires will do just fine), new products such as BlackMagic3D’s conductive graphene-based and Proto Pasta’s conductive PLA filament will make it possible to 3D print electronically enabled objects, such as circuitry and sensors, in one go. Even before thermoplastic conductive filaments become reliable and affordable enough, paste based extrusion technologies combine some of the advantages of inkjet based 3D printing with the affordability of desktop machines.
One day we may even be able to 3D print these products at home using extrusion based technologies, even with thermoplastic filament.
The leaders in this field are Voxel8, an Autodesk Spark funded, Harvard spinoff which has Professor Jennifer Lewis (one of the global leaders in bioprinting research) among its co-founders.
The Voxel8 3D printer implements both thermoplastic extrusion and pneumatic extrusion of pastes and conductive silver inks.
Another company presenting a similar machines is BotFactory, which uses a combination of 2D inkjet and paste extrusion technologies to build PCB’s in their Squink system. The Squink also enables the placing of solder and to do pick-and-place with additional non-3D printed components. These features make it into a complete desktop factory.
At the rate things are going, by the end of 2016 there could be an electronics factory on more than a few desks.
3D PRINTING SMART PRODUCTS… AND BEYOND
So what, in the end, can we really do with 3D printed electronics today? Nascent Objects’ modular approach to consumer electronics is probably the most complete at this point in terms of vision. However its Doppler water usage monitor, the Red wi-fi speaker and the CouCou wi-fi cam are still confined to a successful Indiegogo campaign so at least a few months away.
Nano Dimension’s NASDAQ Listing and PV NanoCell’s rumored partnership with a large 3D printer manufacturer are also indications that inkjetted 3D printed electronics are coming soon. The first will still be limited to PCB’s (an entirely new generation of 3D PCB’s with completely innovative shapes, made for the smart products of tomorrow), while PV NanoCell’s ink may be used to make wearable and immediately useful products with embedded antennas and sensors, with amazing development possibilities. Another player in this field will be Voltera: this startup aims to bring 3D printed PCB to the masses with their $2,500 electronics circuit 3D printer, scheduled to ship late 2016.
As for many other faces of 3D printing, the focus for consumer 3D printed electronics is on the mid to long term future. However there are already plenty of applications to have fun with, even on a low cost desktop 3D printer.
ProtoPasta released on Thingiverse designs for a speaker, a flashlight, a capacitative stylus, a lamp and even a functional joypad, all 3D printed with embedded electronic components, while Voxel8 took it a step further with a 3D printed quadcopter and a watch, also fully functional (although not freely available to reproduce at home yet).
With 3D printed electronics, as with bioprinting and with all 3D printing we are just a the very beginning of something with almost infinite development potential. The technologies are almost here, all it takes is a spark to start a new cycle of innovation.
– Davide Sher