Traditional methods of circuit board fabrication are costly and quite limiting in terms of scale and design complexity. Also, they can be wasteful because laser cutting and CNC milling cut off unwanted sections. However, the PCB 3D printing process can layer large and complex custom PCBs affordably while reducing wastage. These benefits enable hobbyists and DIYers to build 3D printed circuit boards from the comfort of their homes. We have covered these circuit boards in detail below and if you need one for your project, read on to learn more!
What is a 3D Printed Circuit Board? Why Use It?
A 3D printed circuit board is a PCB made using an additive process that creates the 3D solid board from a digital design file. Most traditional PCB fabrication processes involve CNC milling, laser cutting, or ironing on glossy paper. However, with the PCB 3D printing process, you make circuit boards by laying the conductive or hollow traces first. The only difference is in the fabrication process, but these finished boards appear and function like regular PCBs.
A 3D printer
How to Make 3D Printed Circuit Boards?
There are several methods of creating 3D print circuit boards, but the two primary ones are:
Using Conductive Filament
This method involves using the 3D printer to lay down the conductive element first, creating line patterns similar to those found on a regular PCB.
You can use other materials to develop multiple layers with conductive filament printing. Also, you can create different PCB shapes, not only the usual flat surface.
The typical filament materials used for printing are conductive inks or TPU, ABS, HIPS, and PLA with graphene. Filament printing forms the board only on which you can solder electronic components.
Creating Hollow Traces
The second method is the opposite of conductive filament printing. Creating hollow traces involves printing the solid block with conductive trace channels formed internally. Afterward, you can fill the slots with conductive material, such as conductive epoxy resin or electric paint.
Creating hollow traces is easier and quicker than using a conductive filament because it doesn't require post-production soldering. However, the process is less capable of creating complex high-density-component designs.
The Best Desktop 3D PCB Printers
Some of the best 3D printers in the market include the following.
Voltera V-One PCB Printer
The Voltera V-One is an ideal entry-level 3D PCB printer because it is relatively affordable (slightly above $2,000). Despite its low price, the device has a decent build volume and can print boards measuring up to 135 x 113.5mm. Additionally, it is compatible with several CAD software packages.
V-One can layer a 0.8mm pin-to-pin minimum pitch with conductive ink and a 0.6mm minimum pitch with solder paste. Regardless of the conductive trace, the width cannot be less than 200 μm.
Nano Dimension DragonFly 2020 PCB Printer
Heralded as the first 3D printer in the world, the DragonFly 2020 is the first of its kind to adhere to IPC guidelines. The unit can fabricate PCBs with the following properties.
- 25μm positional accuracy on any axis
- 200 x 3 x 200 mm maximum build size
- Min & max feature sizes of 80 μm & 1.5mm, respectively
- 0.03 mm or 30 μm minimum layer thickness
- Multilayered boards with 3mm total thickness
The printer supports conductive and dielectric polymer inks for hollow traces. However, it is expensive because prices start at $50,000.
Othermill Pro PCB Printer
The Othermill Pro printer is a precise, portable milling machine built to produce double-sided circuit boards as thin as 150 μm trace widths. It can create PCBs measuring 140 x 114 mm maximum with a 75 μm positional accuracy. Even though it is affordable, the machine cannot work with hard materials like FR-4 and glass, and it is available only in the US. However, it is compatible with several OSs and CAD software.
Voxel8 PCB Printer
One unique feature of this Voxel8 printer is its dual print heads. The first one uses silver (conductive) ink, while the other uses fused wire based on the typical FFF/FDM technology.
Each ink head features a 250-micron diameter nozzle, and the print bed is magnetic for high repeatability. This bed allows you to remove the incomplete object temporarily while printing to insert components, then resume the process.
Squink by BotFactory
Squink's unique selling point is that it can print multilayer boards on different rigid and flexible substrates with a max size of 84 x 152 mm. However, it can print larger single-layer boards, with the maximum size being 152 x 152 mm. The recommended feature printing size is 0.508mm, but it can go as low as 0.254mm.
A 3D printer
The printer contains three heads, one for printing, the second for gluing, and the third for picking & placing. Besides printing, the unit can assemble four parts per minute, with the tiniest package size being 15.4mm. However, the machine cannot place thru-hole components automatically.
Benefits & Drawbacks of 3D Printed Circuit Boards
3D PCBs have the following advantages and disadvantages.
Edges of 3D Printed Circuit Boards
- Quick Production: 3D PCB printing ensures computers handle the design and fabrication processes. This operation hastens the production time to enhance efficiency and increase capacity.
- Less Waste Material: Unlike traditional methods that mill or corrode the excess material, 3D printing is a deposition method that only utilizes the required material. Therefore, it wastes less, translating to high-cost savings.
- Greater Design Flexibility: Computer-Aided Design gives you high flexibility. Thus, you can experiment with different layers, forms, or shapes when making circuit boards for various industries.
Limitations of PCB 3D Printing
- Less Effective Conductive Materials: The conductive paint or epoxy resin used to make electrical paths in hollow trace printing is not as effective as metal. The electrical resistance of these materials can be a problem depending on your project's scale.
- Risky When Soldering: Soldering is necessary when using conductive filament printing. Depositing molten metal to the board can weaken it significantly. Remember, soldering irons can hit 300°C, and such temperatures can damage the printed metal.
- Lack of Software Support: CAD programs can be costly. However, there are open-source design applications that are free to use. But these usually lack support or guidance. Therefore, it can be challenging to try 3D circuit board design and printing (unless you have some design experience).
Cool 3D Printing Projects
Electric Coffee Maker with 3D Printed Parts
An electric coffee maker contains several parts & connectors, and it is easier to order the internal components. However, you can design and 3D print the casing parts individually. With all the pieces ready, assemble the coffee maker and try your new appliance.
3D Printed Telescope
3D printing a telescope requires some skills and knowledge. Downloading and printing the parts is easy, but mounting the mirror and assembling the camera & focus can be challenging. Also, you need a Raspberry Pi to control the camera.
Loudspeaker iPhone Extension
If you prefer listening to music from your iPhone without using earbuds or headphones, a 3D-printed loudspeaker can help amplify the sound. The loudspeaker will have echoing chambers on both sides that raise the sound level. You can use these design files for an iPhone 6 and 6+.
Automated 3D Printed Circuit Board Print.
Once you get the hang of it, you should be able to 3D print the plastic board and deposit the conductive material or solder simultaneously. Doing so should create the complete PCB in one or two rounds. The process involves printing a component holder, inserting the components, then printing the board & its conductive traces to complete the circuit.
In conclusion, 3D circuit boards significantly reduce the costs of prototyping and developing DIY projects. Buying a 3D PCB printer can be costly but worth it. Also, you need to learn Computer Aided Design. But once done, you will cut production time by a wide margin. That's it for this article. If you have any questions or comments, leave a message, and we'll get back to you in no time.