3D Printers May Soon Be Able To Create Electronic Circuits
Houses, sheds and even castles have been built using 3D printed masonry. 3D printers capable of printing metal are starting to become commonplace as well.
This is explosive growth, definitely — but there are some types of fabrication that have eluded 3D printers so far. One notable area is the printing of integrated circuits.
Printed electronics are already in existence, but as with many futuristic technologies in their contemporary forms , the costs can be eye-watering. They also often require their own printing units.
Previous attempts at 3D printed electronics, such as Carbomorph, utilized the right technology but still did not achieve the necessary levels of conductivity for a PCB, rendering attempt to render complex electronic circuitry useless. However, low energy efforts such as a game-controller proved successful.
But this a shifting market with brewing demand. More businesses, investors and university research labs are sitting up and taking note of the financial potential of 3D printed electronics. Because of this, major progress is being made.
In 2012, Michael Toutonghi and his son set out to build an electromagnetic rocket for a science fair project, using primarily 3D printing materials . However, they quickly realized that the electronics needed for their rocket to fully function were currently outside the available 3D printing spectrum. Feeling that this was unacceptable, they did what any self-respecting engineer would do, and came up with a solution. The result is F-Electric, a highly conductive material that can be fed into printers designed to take standard PLA plastic feedstock , which prints electrically conductive circuits.
Their self-developed, home-designed product can produce filament with a resistance measuring under 1 ohm/cm. The conductivity of other 3D printing filaments currently available scale between 1,000-10,000 ohm/cm. An all in one printer solution, funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign, will set you back at least $1,500 to step on the playing field.
In comparison, Toutonghi has created a conductive filament that currently retails for $70 per half-pound, and can be fed into low-cost traditional 3D printers. Even the price of the filament should drop quickly as mass production begins. Toutonghi’s Functionalize F-Electric company launched a Kickstarter campaign searching for $100,000 in funding, offering low backers a chance to buy some 3D printed knickknacks, including a 3D printed LED keychain, a 3d printed magnetic lock box, and a 3d printed magnetic levitating desk toy.
Unfortunately the F-Electric Kickstarter campaign fell somewhat short of their $100,000 target, reaching just $30,126 across 227 backers.
However, this hasn’t put Toutonghi and his team off — and, as a result of publicity garnered throughout their campaign F-Electric will still be entering production in the near future – though it’s not clear in exactly what form, as a number of potential partnerships begin to make themselves apparent. In the meantime, Functionalize are still offering their filament for sale through their own site, so all is not lost.
Nanyang Technological University
Functionalize isn’t the only game in town.
NTU Singapore successfully printed a complex electronic circuit using a common t-shirt printer – a process that, while not technically 3D printing, employs many of the same processes and can be combined with traditional 3D printing to produce hybrid outputs. The circuits can be printed directly onto a range of everyday materials: plastics, aluminium foil and paper have had successful test runs.
Associate Professor Joseph Chang, head of the NTU Singapore Research Group believes that:
“This means we can have smarter products, such as a carton that tells you exactly when the milk expires, a bandage that prompts you when it is time for a redressing and smart patches that can monitor life signals like your heart rate”
The NTU process is different from other existing electronics printing as the circuits are completed without the use of oxidising agents or any toxic chemicals, meaning the finalised product is ‘green,’ scalable and can be completed within minutes of design completion.
With these eco-friendly credentials in mind, the NTU see their innovative electronic printing process as an important step forward in biomedical science and will look to developing a range of digital and analogue printed circuits for medical sensors and processors in the near future.
What Good Are 3D Printed Circuits?
You might be surprised!
The world is full of electronics enthusiasts who like nothing more than designing, exploring, innovating and experimenting across the entire electronics spectrum. But, as any number of those enthusiasts will tell you, etching your own PCB is a difficult, tedious process that tends to lose its charm after that first go-around.
The development of 3D printed electronics through easily accessible filament replacements like the F-Electric would significantly lower the barrier to entry for potential users, hopefully encouraging more people to become involved, spurring experimentation around the globe. 3D printed electronics may one day help to allow users to become more self-sufficient in terms of low-cost electronic goods, and may open up a whole new world of crowdsourced technological innovation.
Excited about 3D printers that can fabricate electronics? What would you create with them? Let us know in the comments!