A Plug-in that Connects CAD Software to 3D Printer


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Feinberg: Exactly, and much easier to do than having to set up chemical tanks and etchers and you name it. The Dragonfly printer, of course, is fully designed for PC fab. I've seen many other 3D printing units—at CES there were several—printing toys and you name it. You are the only one that I'm aware of that I believe is totally, fully designed for circuit board fabrication. Do you think that's true?

Fried: I wake up every morning expecting to find out otherwise, but so far, I've not gotten wind of anything that is targeting what we're doing, and certainly no one doing what we're doing. It's sometimes suspicious in that you wonder why this is the case, but I think it's such a different angle. The folks involved in 3D printing are so imbued with the mechanical engineers' needs and the mechanical engineers' material sets that it seems people are waiting to see where our technology goes. They're letting us be the canary in the mine.

Feinberg: It could be. The ones I've seen that are also making circuit boards, they're really designed for other things too, but they're also showing that they can make a circuit board. I think they're looking for different areas of focus. Yours is the only one that I'm aware of that has got this level of attention.

Fried: I think you have several that use the XYZ motion of, say, a classic extrusion 3D printer to add copper milling capabilities, for example. You can certainly find some that would let you do etching, and there's the company, Voltara, up in Toronto, who are very much focused on circuit boards, but to date only really one layer and 8, 9, 10 mil traces. There is a company out in New York called BotFactory, who similarly have a focus on electronics. Their deposition technology and their materials are fantastic if you're a maker, but they do not yet seem to be focused on industrial applications.

Feinberg: Do you envision a time when most standard circuit board fab companies will also have a 3D printer?

Fried: I'd be surprised if it doesn't end up there eventually. Just take the slogans of companies like Flex, with their company slogan. They talk about going ‘from sketch to scale.’ The drive for such companies is how early can they get engagement with their customer? The earlier they get it, the more likely they are to be the person who ends up with the resulting larger volume contract. The closer an organization is to the needs of the market, the more information and insight you get into general trends.

Certainly, when I speak to the PCB companies, it is a conservative place. I fully expect the initial steps to be very much with that aerospace, defense, R&D group. They're more forward looking, perhaps, and less conservative. They have other factors to consider when adopting new technologies. That said, we do have some PCB industry companies as part of our beta program. The way we see them using the technology now is that they're saying, "There's so much noise at the prototyping end of work, and it interferes with all of our other processes."

It makes it very difficult for the larger players to be flexible and nimble enough to really have those interactions at that sketch phase of a product. Basically, the Dragonfly will absorb all the noise and allow them to engage earlier, and thereby perhaps even get involved at the design stage much more than they are currently, where they're typically getting things nearer to the production stage.

Feinberg: I think that will be a big aha! moment when you start to send out press releases saying this circuit board company and that circuit board company and so forth, have now bought Dragonfly units. I think it's coming. I really do.

Fried: Yeah, and they're using it also for things that we frankly didn't foresee. They're making test fixtures and jigs. You can essentially print the bed of nails. You print the invert board that you just printed, and you can create a relatively quick way of testing your board. You can print the stencil for the solder. In the end, as with anything, you give it to the customer, and then it certainly goes beyond the kind of things that we originally had in mind. That comes down to the fact that the printer right now with that 3D plug-in can turn out very high-resolution polymer parts with embedded circuitry. We can also look at creating parts that you can add sprung pins to as you would with test sockets, etc. There are applications that spring to mind, and oftentimes that mind isn't ours, but the customer's.

Feinberg: I think you and I first met a year and a half ago or so at CES. At that time, you were looking to get your first units in the field. Now we know you have units out there. How many units do you have in the field right now? Can you tell me?

Fried: There were 16 companies in the end who participated in the beta program. Some of those still have systems that they're using. They're slowly migrating from the beta units to the commercially released unit. Not all of them will because some of them were partners primarily to get their input and feedback. Those that we expected would go ahead and upgrade, to date seem to be proceeding as expected.

We’ve announced eight system orders since the launch of the system. The first announced customer for the system was Jabil, which is obviously a good vote of confidence as well as the esteemed Max Planck in Germany. The interest is quite global. That's in line with our expectations for what is a global industry. Certainly, the U.S. and Germany seem to be the places where we're getting initial traction and are also the most easily serviced markets for us. Korea, Taiwan and Japan are not far behind.

Feinberg: Yes, I would think so. Probably more so than China. Let me switch topics a little bit. What kind of advances are you seeing in the consumable that's used?

Fried: The status is that because we're currently very focused on the system launch; there's only so much an organization of our size can do, and we've still only commercialized those two inks, the silver ink and a liquid FR-4, you could call it. Those are the two materials that are out there, and those are the only ones we talk about as being relevant for availability in the near term.

We are doing a lot of research into ceramic or ceramic-like materials, and looking at materials that would add increased flexibility to allow for better flex parts. At the moment, we can print very thin parts, and they give a certain amount of bend, but they're certainly not flex. To offer fully flex or rigid-flex type parts, that kind of a flex addition is certainly on the roadmap. Those really are the two main areas beyond what's there. Ultimately, with the 3D capability, a support material, as you often have to have in 3D printing to print overhangs requires a sacrificial support ink as well, to allow you to achieve the full range of shapes. None of these are released yet, but watch out.

Feinberg: Lots of stuff coming. Let me switch gears again just a little bit. You were not at CES, and I don't know if you noted, but when I covered 3D printing at CES, I mentioned the fact that you guys were not there. I think you're the only time I've ever mentioned anybody who wasn't there rather than people who were. You had a very good answer for it, and I wanted to pass that on. You said the end consumer is not your market.

Fried: Firstly, thank you for the mention, because it did jump out at me as well—goodness, we were mentioned for being absent—which is usually a form of punishment, but in this case, it certainly wasn't. We did sneak some samples in because of our collaboration with Techniplas, which is technical plastics, a leading automotive supplier. We're now collaborating with them as part of their additive manufacturing effort. We did have some parts and information on display in their booth, but it wasn’t a full booth for us this year. We launched our new system at productronica in Munich.

Feinberg: I understand. Of course, I went to the Israeli pavilion, and I knew you weren't going to be there, but they had quite a nice pavilion this year. They made some changes to it and it was very interesting.

Fried: They are very generous in the support they offer. It's very professional and they really make a big effort.

Feinberg: Yeah, it was extremely busy there. Really packed. Are you going to be at IPC APEX EXPO this year?

Fried: Yes. I there's a panel session that I'll be participating in I'd say we're at a 50/50 as to whether we'll manage to get a booth and a printer together, just because we'll be at Solidworks World next week as well as at Embedded in Germany.

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