Monday, November 14, 2011

3-D Printers Will Build Circuit Boards ‘In 2 Years’

Before you know it, we’ll be building circuit boards with 3-D printers.

In other words, 3-D printers will help us manufacture PCs. Or even, other 3-D printers.

“Printing actual circuit boards is very close,” says David ten Have, CEO of 3-D printing outfit Ponoko. “Most of the assembly tools are completely automated anyway. I’m guessing 18 to 24 months.”

Ten Have is discussing a 3-D printing technique known as “additive printing.” Whereas a standard printer jets ink onto paper, a 3-D printer builds three dimensional objects by layering materials — plastic, metals, rubbers — on top of each other. Each layer is about one three-thousandths of an inch thick. Some 3-D printing techniques have been around for over 20 years, but they’re finally getting to the point they can be used by the average company — not just the massive corporation.

To build real-world circuit boards, ten Have explains, we need only two things. The first is file standardization. We need a common protocol that describes each design. Microsoft has made inroads here with its .NET Gadgeteer platform, but it’s far from standard. The second is a substrate material that works well with 3-D printers. With these two things in place, he says, a 3-D printer could select existing resistors, capacitors, and even microprocessors, and place them onto the substrate.

No, we’re not talking about printing the actual microprocessor. Asked when this will happen, ten Have laughs. “I don’t really know about that one,” he says. But he notes that some microprocessors are built with graphene, a typical 3-D printing substrate. more