Today’s 3D electronics manufacturing processes let you create circuitry on 3D surfaces, giving you flexibility and control that flat circuit boards of the past could not. This enables smooth, intuitive tools in which electronic components are shaped to fit the product, instead of the other way round.
Types of 3D Electronics
The most common types of 3D electronics being manufactured today are:
- MID (molded interconnect device) — injected molded plastic with integrated circuit pattern to create electromechanical parts. MID can create products such as small, diagnostic health devices for monitoring ongoing health conditions.
- IMSE (injected molded structural electronic) — integrates printed circuits and electronic parts into molded plastics for specific applications, particularly in consumer products. For instance, ISME is used in a car armrest that integrates lighting and touch controls.
- Printed — methods for creating electronics on a variety of substrates, including fully functional circuit boards.
- Flexible — assembly process to mount electronics on flexible plastic substrates, also called flex circuits. These hybrid electronics can perform even after being stretched more than 30 percent, making them ideal for use in wearable devices.
Applications and Industries Accelerating Adoption
While 3D electronics haven’t hit mass market in every field, certain industries are adopting the technology quickly.
Across many industries, 3D printing is accelerating prototype design, with printers that are able to create electronic components. This technology allows you to design the parts to fit your product idea, as opposed to designing the product around the parts.
The solar energy industry is benefiting from photovoltaic printed electronics, which can convert sunlight into electricity. Manufacturers can produce the devices more easily than traditional silicon solar cells, and panels are more flexible. While you may not see them on rooftops, their use is expected to rise on smart devices as an energy source — for instance, such panels are already being used to power devices such as cell phones when placed in solar backpacks.
For decades, the auto industry has used sensors and other electronic innovations to improve the driving experience and to boost passenger safety. Now, it’s turning to 3D electronics, taking advantage of flexible electronics and ISME, which can be tailored to fit into a vehicle’s curved surfaces while reducing costs. Printed sensors are also making a difference in the auto industry. Printed sensors allow for increased volumes at lower costs, enabling emerging applications, such as sensors that track a vehicle’s surroundings and road/weather conditions.
In the medical industry, where top performance from small, portable devices is a must, 3D electronics are beginning to make inroads. These devices require smaller, more powerful, high precision chips. 3D electronics can keep up with the latest diagnostic capabilities without prohibitive costs.
In aerospace, 3D electronics are being used to build devices that pack more functionality into less space to fit aerodynamic needs: An aerosol jet system can be used to print electronic components such as sensors, wires, and antennas directly on a structure, such as an airplane’s wing. Such technology can prevent adding extra pounds with separate circuit boards, cutting down on aerodynamic drag.
Finally, flexible electronics make it easier to build IoT devices. With the different types of 3D electronics available, it becomes easier to add circuits into just about any object. When you can turn an object into a sensor, it can then be connected to the internet and used to gather data insights, which can then trigger a programmed response. Such technology is being used in modern “smart homes” all over the world, integrated into ovens, refrigerators, and other home appliances.
Advantages of 3D Electronics
The most obvious advantage with 3D electronics, particularly printed electronics, is the savings in both time and costs. In testing situations, engineers can create prototypes more quickly and control the volume of components. Rather than having to predict their needs and hope the purchase is correct, they can print components when they are needed. They no longer need to wait for additional parts to arrive, or deal with the expense of ordering too much. Parts can also be configured as needed.
Modern 3D electronics technologies also provide manufacturers with far more flexibility around the structure of their products — for instance, embedding flexible electronic components into wearable devices allows for lightweight, stretchable products that can adapt to the user’s needs. Today’s 3D electronics techniques make it easier than ever to develop products that seamlessly blend into their environment.
Industry Disruption Ahead
In high-tech, high-performance oriented fields such as aerodynamics and medicine, where even the slightest increase in weight can impact a product’s performance, 3D electronics are already transforming product design, enabling designers to bring new, lightweight and flexible products to market.
3D electronics — particularly those made with 3D printers — are also invaluable in the prototyping process. Ernst & Young found that by moving PCB printing in-house with a 3D printer, companies were able to lower prototyping time by 63%. By increasing the speed of their iterations and validating more frequently, companies were able to improve their design quality.
While it can be difficult to produce high-volume products using 3D electronics at this point, the technology continues to evolve, and will only expand from here: By 2025, 3D printed electronics could be a $1 billion market.