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3D Electronics as an Alternative to Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs)

Posted on 8st October, 2020 by Leo Lambert

It began with wire-wraps and point-to-point construction and moved to printed circuit boards (PCBs), but now there’s 3D electronics that can do the work of PCBs and beyond. Offering complete circuits to be integrated within an object, 3D electronics are on the rise as they continue to undergo extensive innovation, metallization methods, and manufacturing methodologies. With 3D electronics, adding electronic functionality to a system no longer requires incorporating a rigid PCB then wiring up the relevant switches, sensors, and power sources – 3D electronics handles all of that.

Different manufacturing techniques for 3D electronics are seen across the automotive, consumer goods, medical device industries, and beyond.

Electronics on a Surface
Laser direct structuring (LDS) is the best approach for adding electrical functionality onto the surface of 3D objects. This is where an additive in the injection-molded plastic is selectively activated by a laser. The LDS approach has been used to manufacture 100s of millions of devices every year – most of which are antennas. However, there are some weaknesses with this approach. LDS is a two-step process that may require sending parts elsewhere for plating – risking IP exposure. Additionally, LDS only enables a single layer of metallization which can restrict circuit complexity. This leads us to look at other methods for 3D electronic integration.

In-Mold Electronics (IME)
Another method for 3D electronic integration is in-mold electronics (IME) which offer a commercially compelling proposition of integrating electronics into injection-molded parts. This reduces the manufacturing complexity, lowering weight and enabling new form factors since rigid PCBs are no longer required. The basic principle for in-mold electronics is that a circuit is printed onto a thermoformable substrate which is then molded to its desired shape and filled with injection-molded plastic. IME is best suited for human machine interfaces.

Fully 3D Printed Electronics
Fully 3D printed electronics are best suited for environments that need a wide range of components to be manufactured at a moment’s notice. This is often used in the U.S. Army and for medical devices like hearing aids and prosthetics.

The use of 3D electronics has undergone innovation with new materials and will continue to undergo changes as the world around us adapts. Becoming up-to-date and properly trained is important when learning to navigate these new changes. That’s why EPTAC offers in-person and online training courses to ensure you’re properly trained throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

For over 30 years, EPTAC has been a leading provider of solder training and IPC certification. We provide professionals with the tools and training they need to advance their careers and improve their businesses. With 19 locations across North America, our solutions and instructional staff provide easy access to knowledge that will enhance your business model and help you meet and exceed industry demands. For more information call 800.643.7822 or contact us.

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