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3D printers generate tiny PCBs

24 Nov 2015  | Rick Merritt

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At the annual IDTechEx conference, Qualcomm and other participants showed advances putting electronics on plastic substrates while two companies presented 3D printers that can make small printed circuit boards.

"We see 3D printing contributing to the vision of a trillion-sensor world," said James Stasiak, a distinguished technologist in printing technology at Hewlett Packard Inc.

A combination of traditional electronics with 3D printing of nanomaterials on new kinds of substrates will enable 10-cent transistors needed for the future Internet of Things, Stasiak said in a keynote. He pointed to the room-sized YieldJet inkjet printer from Kateeva that printed OLEDs as well as research printing with DNA and other biological materials.

On the show floor Israeli start-up Nano Dimension demoed its DragonFly 2020 3D Printer for the first time in the United States. It can print a multi-layer 20cm x 20cm circuit board that is up to 3mm high with 80µ traces in three to 20 hours, depending on the number of layers. The company targets users who don't want to wait weeks it typically takes to make a board and can tolerate the $50,000 cost of the printer.

Nano Dimension

Nano Dimension printed tiny circuit boards at IDTechEx. (All images: EE Times)

Key to the 3D printer is a silver-conductive and an insulating ink Nano Dimension developed, printed through a 500-nozzle inkjet head from Minolta. Like many targeting this market, the company is working on a cheaper copper-conductive ink, but so far no one has solved the problem of keeping cooper from oxidising in the print process, said Amit Dror, chief executive and co-founder of the company, shown with the new system below.

Nano Dimension got its start less than two years ago when its founders had an idea for adapting for printed-circuit boards a silver-conductive ink used for creating solar cells on a silicon wafer. Investors encouraged the founders to get listed on the Tel Aviv stock exchange where it has been able to raise $17 million. It aims to start pre-selling systems at the Consumer Electronics Show and deliver them late next year.

Amit Dror

Amit Dror, chief executive and co-founder of Nano Dimension, is shown with the company's DragonFly 2020 3D Printer at IDTechEx.

HP's Stasiak said companies such as Nano Dimension ultimately should be able to print circuit boards that cost less and offer greater flexibility than traditional processes. One of the challenges using the ink jet method, however, is it is currently limited to applying femto-litre droplets that create relatively large traces, he said.

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