Technologies are evolving quickly in 3D printing and new nano-materials. Will these new technologies impact the market for embedded computing products? We believe the answer is, yes, but, not immediately. The 3D printing process is too slow for the production volumes needed for many if not most products that contain embedded computing. The first embedded market impact of new 3D and nano technologies will be on the engineering processes that create products not the products themselves.
Is the concept of printing electronic circuits new? Not in the slightest. When I first began my engineering career in the late 70s, the company I worked for produced laser trim systems. These systems were used by customers to measure and perfectly adjust the resistors on ceramic modules that had been printed using a silk screen printing process.
After process steps for printing the circuit traces and resistive components, the laser system would then be used to make continual measurements as laser pulses cut into the resistive material. This would increase the resistance until it met the target value. Prior to laser technology, this same task would have used a sand blast method. In either case, the modules would be completed by adding semiconductor dies and encapsulating the module.
Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are not really printed as much as they are plated and etched. Because of the density and complex circuits multiple layers are usually required. PCBs like the 70’s era ceramic modules require significant manpower and expense to design and layout the circuits and then create the necessary screens and photo masks needed to produce the product. Even with all the automated tools that engineers can utilize, this PCB development process can take a significant amount of time. If the first articles produced are found to have problems, a re-spin adds more time-to-market delay. It is worth noting that the equipment needed to create PCBs and embedded modules are expensive and therefore most companies rely on contract manufacturing specialists to produce them.
The same pictured module could be produced using a 3D printer either on top of ceramic or, perhaps, using another material as a substrate. The base might even be flexible, allowing the finished product to be more adaptable. By precisely controlling the amount of resistive material, a trimming process could possibly be eliminated. Even capacitors could, (in theory), be printed.
Most importantly, a small engineering team could be testing a prototype of a new embedded computer product within hours of developing it. Production of the verified design would still be completed by the aforementioned contract manufacturers, but the time-to-market would be more compressed and there would far less uncertainty about having to make engineering corrections. At a minimum, the ability to rapidly produce prototypes and proof-of-concept products can level the playing field for smaller less capitalized embedded computer suppliers.
In the distant future, as 3D printing capabilities and speed increase along with the development of nano materials that can be used as “ink”, embedded hardware may take on an entire new meaning. Consider an automotive part like a bumper that was manufactured with all of the electronics needed for a collision avoidance system completely embedded in the bumper’s material. As the bumper is printed, the circuit traces and components could be printed or picked and placed. Is this printing/embedded process feasible today? No, but like previous disruptive technologies its time will come.
What should embedded suppliers do now? As 3D and material technologies start to mature and stabilize, suppliers should begin to use 3D printing to produce prototypes of embedded sub-modules. This exercise should be conducted in parallel with traditional processes to test if and when time to market compression exists. When the new technologies are proven, suppliers can confidently develop new products because they will know that the engineering prototypes they produce will be reliable proxies for their completed products.