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For anyone familiar with 3D printing and PCBs, it’s difficult to imagine a future where PCBs are not 3D printed. 3D printing promises to make PCB manufacturing faster, easier and more innovative. It is only recently, however, that printed electronics (PE) and 3D printing technology have started to catch up with imagination.
3D printing is now at the stage where it is going from a fun, interesting approach to a serious contender that will change industries.
An Introduction to the World of 3D Printing
It’s a topic that has been in the news a lot recently, yet 3D printing, or as it’s more properly known, additive manufacturing, has been around as a process for quite some time. The bottom line is that additive manufacturing nowadays comprises a range of different competing processes, including those that use heat, lasers, inkjet deposition or other techniques to add different materials, layer by layer, to build new or to add to existing objects. Each process has advantages and disadvantages in terms of precision, materials, end-product durability and flexibility in terms of the objects and shapes that can be supported. As a rule, there is a correlation between price, resolution and range of supported materials.
But 30 years ago, things were different. In 1984, Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp. developed the stereolithography (SLA) approach. Here, UV lasers cure liquid photopolymers into solid objects. Imagine a container of polymer liquid where a laser beams down from above and solidifies the surface layer. After each laser pass, the object is lowered a little. Each solid layer is then added to until, in the end, a complete object has been built, from the bottom up.
At the high end of 3D printing, the SLA process is still going strong and has been joined by Stratasys’s sophisticated “polyjet matrix,” an inkjet-based technology. HP has recently announced that it is joining the fray with its own approach to inkjet additive printing.
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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of The PCB Magazine.