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Nano Dimension and the Future for Electronics Production

Since the widespread commercialisation of 3D printers, it never ceases to amaze us its evolution, from general-purpose desktop DIY FDM printers to unimaginable innovations. Nano Dimension is one of those companies that just broke ground by pioneering the development of …

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Alejandro Auerbach

February 24, 2021

Since the widespread commercialisation of 3D printers, it never ceases to amaze us its evolution, from general-purpose desktop DIY FDM printers to unimaginable innovations. Nano Dimension is one of those companies that just broke ground by pioneering the development of additive manufacturing electronics (AME).

Now that this technology is steadily spreading into the market, we are really excited to delve into it. Nevertheless, it’s important to have a little bit of context on PCBs’ production, the foundation of modern electronic circuits. In this crucial transition to Industry 4.0, where the barriers between our physical and digital worlds are melting, PCB development is of the essence. However, there are significant challenges we must face first.

A Little Bit of Context on PCBs

Printed circuit boards have made it possible to have very complex electrical connections arranged in small places. For instance, computer motherboards are PCBs that hold most hardware components orderly and seamlessly without dealing with a whole entangled wire mess.

So, PCBs are basically embedded wires forming trace patterns in a dielectric material sheet (Also known as substrate). The most popular materials for this is copper as the conductor and FR-4, an epoxy-based fibreglass with unique insulating, thermal and mechanical properties.

Other critical aspects of PCBs are their layered composition and drill holes. The standard design comprises stacking layers, each with its own set of circuits. On the other hand, drill holes serve three main functions:

  • Mounting holes to fasten screws
  • Soldering external through-hole components
  • Placing a via, which is a connector that extends through layers vertically

Everything’s fine until now, but what does it take to make one?

PCB Production

Although we use PCBs for almost any electronic device today, we take for granted the feat that is embedding intricate connections compacted in a board within high accuracy standards. Making circuit boards is, in fact, a very demanding process. To implement a production line capable of meeting quality standards, tight tolerances and fast cycles and specialised facilities are necessary.

The overall workflow comprises significant upfront investments in machinery, tooling, huge facilities and a large workforce. For any electronic designer, the standard way to go is:

  1. Design the PCB through an ECAD software
  2. Generate a Gerber file, which contains all the manufacturing data required. For example, the number of layers, traceroutes, drill holes, outline cuts.
  3. Outsource for prototype manufacturing
  4. Make iterations to your design
  5. Outsource again for production

The manufacturing process itself is impressive, but it would take way beyond the scope of this article to cover it. What really matters here is the challenges that electronics developers are facing.

For more information on PCB production, click here.

Challenges

To better illustrate the situation, we want to point out the following 7 key challenges for electronics production.

  1. Costly Production Lines: Many processes like photomasking, chemical baths, drilling, CNC routing, soldermasking, require large installations. All of this without even mentioning all the equipment for control and inspection requirements.
  2. Large workforce: Having to deal with so many operations needs lots of skilled hands too.
  3. Outsourcing: The APAC (Asia-Pacific) region, mainly China, covers 90% of global PCB production due to cheaper labour costs.
  4. Intellectual Property Concerns: By sending your Gerber files and BOMs, companies face serious risks of IP leaks. This is mainly a serious issue when it comes to the defence industry.
  5. Shipping Costs: Not only shipping fees are troublesome but also all the logistics, paperwork, customs and, most importantly, the back and forth dynamic can extend development times for months.
  6. Environmental Concerns: The disposal of hazardous chemical waste used during the manufacturing process and toxic fume emissions are environmental issues we must take very seriously.
  7. Market Demand for Complexity Increases: As electronic device innovations improve incredibly fast, the standard rigid and planar designs may fall short in front of new design paradigms.

Now that we know there’s lots of room for improvement, let’s see what Nano Dimension brings to the table.

Nano Dimension

This company, also known by its NASDAQ stock market code NNDM, took to another level the additive manufacturing potential of streamlining processes in terms of fast production cycles and design flexibility. After many years of development, their AME technology is now steadily entering the electronics market with high prospects of transforming it from its core.

AME technology’s agile in-house production of fully functional electronics accelerates time to market from 4 months to 7 days (According to Nano Dimension CEO Yoav Stern), enabling:

  • Overnight printing of circuit boards, ready for soldering and ready to assemble
  • A workflow reduction where photomasking, chemical baths, stacking layers, plating, drilling, and cutting is no longer necessary
  • Reducing error costs by rapid prototyping, proof of concept evaluation and validation processes
  • Sensitive IP protection, of course
  • Its unique approach to reducing manufacturing constraints increases design freedom for complex design features and possibilities
  • Cleaner and more sustainable than traditional processes

Technology

Now, how does it work? The DragonFly LDM system uses inkjet technology, just like a standard ink 2D printer. Multi-material printheads simultaneously deposit micron-sized droplets through a pattern of independent nozzles. This machine uses two types of ink consumables for both conductive and dielectric purposes.

First, their proprietary AgCite, which was carefully developed with silver nanoparticles, reaches optimum electrical and mechanical properties. During printing cycles, a heating mechanism enables fast and accurate sintering. By having 105 to 130% of the conductivity of copper, it performs as a great substitute.

Secondly, their proprietary dielectric polymers provide all the properties typical to FR4, like electrical insulation, thermal dissipation, adherence, flame resistance, and mechanical performance versatility. Similarly to the conductive ink, a unique UV light technology enables optimal curing.

How efficient is this machine? Its original Lights-Out Digital Manufacturing (LDM) system focuses on new heights in terms of automation. Built-in control mechanisms work in closed loops to rely less on human supervision, which means that it can avoid by itself maintenance, failure and troubleshooting downtimes.

Circuit manufacturing deals with strict tolerance standards, and people might ask the following question: Can the DragonFly LDM technology keep those standards?  Well, with a minimum layer thickness of 17 microns for conductive traces and 35 microns for dielectric material, plus 1 micron of mechanical accuracy, we can safely say it provides outstanding precision.

Freedom of Design

Design flexibility is central to why the 3D printing revolution has been such an impactful phenomenon during the last decade. As we enter industry 4.0, circuit board’s design requirements are becoming increasingly complex, so developers must overcome manufacturing constraints. In fact, in a survey conducted by the Aberdeen Group, PCB designers’ primary focus is to increase product complexity. In the image below, we can see that achieving complexity is first among the top design challenges.

Top Challenges in PCB design - Nano Dimension

As you can see in this chart, design complexity implies decreasing weight, size and thickness while making larger circuits. However, design complexity goes way beyond that; it also implies other aspects that are becoming much more plausible thanks to AME technology.

As shown in the images below, 3D printed PCBs have no lamination.

By reducing this limitation, new possibilities in design like arranging more dynamic free-form trace paths in a 3D space facilitate the following arrangements:

  • Side-mounted components
  • Inserted components
  • Vertically stacked integrated circuits
  • 3D-MIDs (3D Molded Interconnect Device or 3D Mechatronic Integrated Device)

Other possible device manufacturing that benefits from AME are:

  • Compact coils and electromagnets
  • Antennas
  • Electromechanical sensors like strain gauges
  • Other components like capacitors and transformers

Other crucial aspects of AME’s freedom of design are part consolidation and bendable devices. Engineers look for part consolidation to reduce the number of components in assemblies. A perfect example of this is 3D-MID devices, where circuits are integrated directly into the device’s structural geometry. Instead of encasing a traditional planar PCB, using this technology opens many opportunities for IoT (Internet of Things) devices.

Also, rigid flex circuit designs are essential for applications where circuits require bending properties. This is not only possible for AME, but it can even be done in one continuous print thanks to the mechanical performance of the Nano Dimension’s proprietary inks.

Software

For every digital manufacturing endeavour, software tool functionalities are crucial. In the case of PCBs design, an EDA/ECAD (Electronic Design Automation) software is required to generate a Gerber file. So, how does it work for AME? How does the DragonFly system gathers design information?

For this purpose Nano Dimension offers the SWITCH software interface, enabling the conversion of Gerber files into printable information. We can find design parameters edition, previsualisation, and printability analysis among this tool’s many features. But most importantly, it offers options to adapt a traditional design to AME optimally. For more information on AME design rules, click here.

However, since EDA software packages are only suited for planar PCB design, how can we adapt more complex 3D circuit designs (Like 3D-MIDs) for AME? Proper tools lack in the market for something as new as this. Thankfully, Nano Dimension is takin the first step with their special add-in for SolidWorks. This interface assigns either conductive or dielectric inks to each part or body within a model, plus some tools to check feature printability before exporting.

To reiterate, this is only a first step into blurring the lines between mechanical and electronic CAD design. We are confident that we are entering into a new era of electronics where we’ll be witnessing widespread tools and standards for AME design popping up in the near future.

If you’re interested to engage further into this groundbreaking technology, SolidPrint3D is here to help you. For more information, please call SolidPrint3D on 01926 333 777 or email on info@solidprint3d.co.uk.

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