Brave new manufacturing world

3D printing delivers new processes for creators and inventors

Imagine a world where a replacement part for an in-home gadget could be created by simply turning on your computer, downloading an online file, and 3D-printing the part. Would this be disruptive to manufacturing industries, or would it lead to innovations benefiting the greater good? Or both?

We aren’t far from this reality. 3D printing processes and materials are being tested and researched by top technology companies and research labs around the world. However, many 3D technologies are still in their infancy, and some materials can only be produced in a commercial setting and not for personal use in homes. 

In a world where items were once manufactured in a linear process, 3D printing has allowed creators, inventors, and manufacturers to veer off a designated path to consider alternative production methods that are more efficient, faster and economical for end-use applications. 

Over the last five years, 3D printing has become a true buzzword in many industries as the resources are becoming more accessible and available. As these technologies are streamlined throughout different businesses, an additional bonus is that many new jobs are being created, combining industries that previously might not have collaborated together. Fashion is blending with science, as wearable fabrics are being programmed to light up the runway from human movements. The medical field is collaborating with technologists who are able to print anatomically accurate 3D models of human organs to aid with surgery preparation. 

These new facets of businesses are able to use 3D printing now in more ways than ever, which has also drastically changed additive manufacturing as a whole. As more people push the capabilities of 3D printing, amazing discoveries are surfacing in media outlets regarding 3D-printed electronics and textiles.  

3D-printed electronics

When people hear that manufacturers are producing 3D-printed electronics, many have the misunderstanding that the entire unit or gadget is 3D-printed, which usually isn’t the case. Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are made up of components that are 3D-printed in materials which contain low melting point alloys. These alloys have conductive properties as they pair with other parts to create a circuit or switch. Antennas and switches were some of the first 3D-printed electronic components, which were then integrated into the production of entire mechanical bodies or units. These components started to surface in the market in 2015. 

There are now a multitude of companies expanding their research and production in the field of 3D-printed electronics. Some of these companies are Voxel8, Nano Dimension, Functionalize, and Optomec. One large drawback for 3D-printed electronics currently is having to print the mechanical components separate from the casing or physical vice of the unit versus having one machine to handle both printing processes. These major industry leaders are working on technologies to further push printing of integrated electromechanical assemblies. They are a few of many who are currently able to produce high-resolution prints with less waste and more flexibility for component placement. Most 3D-printed parts are built to size to fit into a specific unit; however, with the changing of technologies, some printers now have the capabilities to print integrated electronic parts directly. Integration ultimately translates to lower costs and quicker routes to customization. 

Nano Dimensions is an Israel-based company which describes their processes in additive manufacturing as making additives intelligent. Devices in today’s world are “smart” having characteristics or personas that imitate human qualities. Smart devices are defined as being electronic gadgets which are able to connect, share, and interact with its users. The idea behind a smart device is to have the computing power to not only assist with a task but also provide as much data or information as possible about a set task. As our world becomes technologically smarter, immersive 3D print technologies are appearing on the market, being updated, and changing around the world at rapid speeds. 3D printers are being created by engineers to print with a focused purpose such as printing circuit boards or optic lenses; however, with today’s market many manufacturers are realizing that the end-users, especially in a high quality reproduction environment, are also looking for the versatility to push the limits of the technologies with modification to machines as well as a larger gamut of filament options.

Many ask whether the return on investment in these technologies is worth it, and the answer lies within the company’s end-use goals and overall vision. Will the technology eliminate a middle step or assist to streamline processes making production more efficient? If the technology can help eliminate outsourcing, increase prototype creation speeds or even expand product lines and research, then these 3D technologies may be a worthy investment for your company or business.  

Pros and cons of 3D-printed electronics 

Let’s start by addressing the positives of this relatively new technology 

Savings during the prototyping stage

Prototyping once meant outsourcing and shipping, sometimes even overseas, to companies that could handle large production quantities at a lower unit cost. With the introduction to 3D-printed electronics, manufacturers are able to produce single units to show investors or even present at meetings. These physical prototypes are beneficial as they provide clients with a tangible, tactile sample of the product. The cost savings are prevalent and align with production speed, which is another positive.  

Production speed

Production speeds are so much quicker compared to previous timelines. Prototypes used to be produced in countries where shipping would take anywhere from several days to a week. Now, 3D printing production times are relative to file sizes, print settings and finishing applications and technologies have come a long way to improve speed and production timelines. Several years ago the option to 3D print electronic component prototypes was not even a possibility. 

Higher accuracy, less product waste

Since software has come a long way, and the advancements can accurately estimate, measure, and distribute specified materials on demand, less waste is produced. Some 3D printers even have the capability to produce high-resolution models with very thin wall tolerances to fractions of a millimetre.  

No need for casting or mold creation

Prior to such methods, manufacturers would have to create a cast or mold of products if they were to be finished in a specific material such as metal. With advancements in filaments, especially conductive materials that can be incorporated into electrical assemblies, molds are no longer required as often. 

Convinced that with so many positives there could not possibly be any negatives, there are several negatives that should be addressed. 

Environmental responsibilities 

When extruding filaments at specific temperatures, some filaments produce odours that are dangerous to inhale, and this is why some machines have their own temperature-controlled chambers. When there is a lack of proper ventilation in a production facility, health risks can be an issue.  

Training and development 

Some companies utilize open source software to produce their 3D printers – a cost-effective way for people to share ideas and improve the technologies collectively. This is not the case for most software and printers. Within this industry, for example, there are many companies that create printers that require their name-brand parts in order to modify, replace or repair any problems. This can become costly and require specialty-training proprietary to the company who create and manufacture the printer and its parts.  

Cost

The cost to purchase and set up a 3D printer can be very high. This can make gaining a competitive advantage over other companies difficult, especially for start-ups or small print shops looking to expand their capabilities from 2D to 3D.   

Extensive post-processing 

Some filaments require extensive post-processing steps to give the product a high-quality finish. This can not only be expensive but can also be extremely time consuming and tedious. Some post-processing steps require harsh chemicals that can be harmful to workers. With machines that don’t have a post-process station, the digital footprint that the solvent or solution baths take up can also be large. Proper protective equipment as well as ventilation should always be considered when a company is going to expand its 3D post-processing capabilities. 

Many industries are embracing the technology and integrating 3D-printed electronic parts into their systems. Cars, optics, smartphones, and photonics are only some examples of products which use 3D-printed electronic components in their switches, antennas and sensors. Since different materials have a great spread of physical properties such as conductivity, strength, and resolution, companies are now making the investments in the technologies. There is much industry anticipation and excitement to see what other markets will start to consider using 3D-printed electronics in their products. 

There are several areas within 3D-printed electronics that are growing rapidly. Poly composite materials with lower melting temperatures are surfacing on the market providing users with a greater breadth of possibilities to create products and rapid prototypes. 3D-printed electronics allow for accurate testing of designs, to ensure that a part will either be successful or fail. These prototypes can be produced at a low production quantity, which won’t then cost a company or client significantly more to create modifications to design files on the fly.

3D-printed textiles in fashion

Wearable smart fashion is already a significant growth market and was a major topic of discussion at the 10th LOPEC (large-area, organic and printed electronics convention) conference in Munich, Germany this past March. Exhibitors from all over the world had the opportunity to showcase new technologies, products and printed components. Smart textiles were some of the 0prototypes showcased. 

Smart textiles are wearable articles of clothing that have integrated technologies, which provide an increase to the overall functionality of the garment. The technology incorporated in smart garments can range from chemical, thermal or even electrical. Some familiar forms of these smart textiles are light-up pieces, or garments that incorporate screen displays.   

Additive manufacturing over the last couple of years has spread into the fashion industry as more materials have been created that contain flexible properties. The practicality of 3D-printed fashion comes down to the comfort of a garment when worn. There is a differentiating line between fashion art and fashion wear. Considerations regarding comfort are usually integrated during two phases of the entire output process. During the digital creation of the garment via CAD software, polygon placement and sizing is critical as the print geometry used to interlock polygons can affect the structure of the printed piece. 

There is some visual stereotypes associated with 3D-printed runway textiles, from geometric shapes to large protruding accessories. Once upon a time 3D-printed fashion only consisted of accessory pieces such as jewelry and shoes. File creation of components with woven interlocked polygon patterns for 3D fashion mirror similar chainmail armor-making techniques dating back to medieval times.  Although 3D print in the fashion industry is not mainly textiles, some materials and products are being tested to push the limits and properties to create prototypes that emulate similar characteristics of fabrics.   

With the increased use of 3D printing in the fashion industry, the customization of garments or accessories is more prevalent. Utilizing 3D technologies within the fashion world caught on like wildfire several years ago with the start of printed accessories to pair with runway looks. Athletic brands such as Reebok and Nike are marketing high-performance, customized footwear made using 3D printing. 

Research is being done to develop 3D-printed textiles that use thermal technology to regulate the temperature of a garment to provide personal comfort to the user. With the integration of boron nitride (an additive compound often used in cosmetic products) into the fibres of the textiles when printing, the textile gains excellent thermal and chemical stability. There is also research being done to further develop these textiles on a molecular level with nanotechnologies. 

There are multiple structural forms of boron nitride, each having unique benefits. There has been recent industry discussion and literature released in regards to future expansion of these technologies into textiles that line the floors and walls of buildings to reduce heating and cooling costs. 

Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done research on the future of inventing fabrics. With the collaboration of multiple faculties from mechanical engineering to fashion design majors, students are discussing what 3D textiles mean for the future. It is safe to say we have come a long way from the creation of the mood rings and necklace glow sticks. 

With all the research and development being put into the 3D world, ideas are being brought to life not just by large companies but also by individuals in their own homes. The future is full of 3D-printed possibilities and will showcase an increase in product development. As if there isn’t already too much choice when purchasing products, the 3D world will open up the ability to customize these products to create one-offs to tap into new markets as samples or test pieces. With the increase of positive thoughts that these technologies can help businesses create from concept to executable products more markets will open their minds further to the idea of using 3D printing as a solution or new process. 

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