Advancements in the emerging technologies of printed electronics and 3D printing are supporting a host of potential new products and parts, manufacturing techniques, and services within the increasingly connected tech ecosystem. The advantages of these technologies include greater design freedom and production efficiency (more speed, less waste) at a lower cost, boosting innovation and making more devices possible than could have been produced with traditional manufacturing processes.
The growing number of applications and greater convenience of implementing these technologies correlates to a substantial potential in market growth over the next decade. Even as soon as 2020, IDTechEx projects considerable growth in the most significant applications for 3D printing: automotive ($979m), aerospace ($1.67bn), medical ($980m), bioprinting ($1.76bn), and consumer products ($490m). As well, the total market forecasts for printed, organic, and flexible electronics are expected to reach $69.03 billion by 2026, a roughly 2.5 fold increase from 2016 ($26.54 billion).
The presentations, demonstrations, and exhibitions at IDTechEx Show 2016 in Santa Clara, CA gave us an inside look at some of the amazing creations already currently available and a preview of what is to come in these two emerging markets.
While there remains hype around printing devices for consumer use, it is the manufacturing and production applications that make this technology so exciting to explore. Printed parts for electronics and the possibilities for rapid prototyping, customization, and replication all lead to rich and diverse uses. Industries such as aerospace, automotive, medicine, and high-tech equipment can increasingly benefit from advancements in 3D printing technology, but cost and consistency and productivity have been an issue in the past. Many companies are making great progress in making additive manufacturing more accurate, efficient, cost effective, and capable of more extensive applications.
Significant achievements in 3D printing fall within several different components of the technology: printing equipment, materials, and applications. These advancements continue to broaden the scope of what is possible to create with this technology.
Industry leader Optomec showcased their Aerosol Jet system for printing electronics, including sensors and antennas for IoT applications, and functional materials. This production-grade high-volume equipment is capable of printing on both 2D and 3D substrates including plastics, ceramics, and metallics. Other advantages for Aerosol Jet technology include the ability to print bio-materials and produce features sizes down to 10 microns. Optomec also produces a line of 3D printers for metals. The LENS systems use a high-powered laser to fuse powdered metals to manufacture, rework, or repair metal components.
In the area of 3D metal printing, which has been experiencing rapid growth, Additive Industries has made remarkable strides in flexibility, productivity, and reproducibility in industrial printer design with their highly integrated metal additive manufacturing machine, MetalFAB1. Their system was bestowed this year’s ‘Best Development in 3D Printing’ Award. By overcoming some of the barriers often faced when using 3D printing for manufacturing purposes, industrial printing systems, such as MetalFAB1, can continue to help evolve 3D printing into a more fully developed commercialized manufacturing industry.
Materials and Form Factors
Developments in 3D printing technology are not merely defined by what you can print but also the materials you can print or manufacture with or on.
ACEO, a Wacker brand, premiered their silicone printing capabilities to the US market, representing a revolutionary breakthrough in printing materials. Some of the advantages of silicon materials include biocompatibility, temperature resistance, elasticity, and the ability to be electrically conductive or insulating. As well, the ability to print complex lattice structures with the material allows for varied haptic effects. ACEO’s elastomer-printing technology has drawn attention from many different industries, from automotive to healthcare to lifestyle. Customers can upload their designs in ACEO’s web shop to be printed, packed, and shipped to them. The unique properties of the materials along with the design freedoms afforded through their printing services, there will undoubtedly be some very promising outcomes produced.
DuPont has a suite of specialized inks available (dielectrics, conductors, adhesives and resistors) for the creation of in-mold electronic (IME) functional plastics. These functional plastics are created by combining printed electronics with the processes of thermoforming and injection molding, to which DuPont’s materials are designed to withstand, to create 3D circuits with capacitive switches and LED lights. These smart, responsive, wireless form factors can be used for controls in automobiles and domestic appliances, and are produced with significant time and cost savings.
In the same vein, TactoTek specializes in injection molded structural electronics (IMSEs), which combine printed electronics (touch controls, antennas, circuitry) and chip-based electronics (sensors, ICs, circuit boards) within 3D injection molded plastic structures. The combination of printed and traditional electronics in a durable material allows for numerous options in functionality within a thin, light form factor. An integrated control panel, for example, could be designed with capacitive buttons, NFC, lighting, proximity sensing, hidden-until-lit icons, printed graphics, and more. With TactoTek technology and design services, innovators can mass produce any of designs for various applications with less material and more design freedom in less time.
Graphene 3D Labs Inc. produces graphene composite materials for 3D printing under the brand BlackMagic3D. Graphene is a carbon allotrope defined by a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice structure on an atomic scale where one carbon atom makes up each vertice of the lattice and each layer is one atom thick. Though graphene is a nonmetal, it’s unique structure gives it amazing properties including metal-like qualities. It is incredibly mechanically strong, has unmatched heat and electricity conductive capabilities, and is an eco-friendly material. This wondrous material has been hailed essentially the plastic of the 21st century. Though it was initially extremely expensive to produce, manufacturing breakthroughs and successful applications have started to bring down the cost. In addition to models or prototypes, graphene composites can also be used in mass manufacturing using thermoforming or injection molding, perhaps leading to a future where it is commonly utilized in the molding for IMEs and IMSEs.
As stated previously, the total market value of the 3D printing industry is predominantly shared between the bioprinting, automotive, aerospace, and medical/dental industries.
Within the automotive space, 3D printing is enabling the production of parts, accessories, displays, controls, casings, and offering a new level of customization for customers. The technology is expected to revolutionize the industry in multiple ways, including speeding up production, expanding design flexibility, and making vehicles more environmentally friendly.
With respect to biomedical applications, 3D printing technologies are quickly narrowing the gap when it comes to accurately recreating parts of the human body, with all the complexity of different tissues and fluids of varied compositions and densities. Stratasys, bi-located in Minnesota and Israel, presented how their 3D printing can be used to assist in complicated biomedical applications, including testing products for performance, skills training for medical personnel, and procedure pre-planning. Specific use cases for their technology include bone sawing, bone plating, implants, suturing, and clearing obstructions. With this technology, surgeons could practice their techniques or plans on 3D printed body parts before operating. Beyond simulation, implant hardware could become customizable to patients. Currently, Stratasys can synthetically mimic basic anatomies (bones, blood vessels) and tissues (muscle, bone, fat, skin, etc.) but is looking to create more complex anatomies in the future, including mimicking whole, complex body parts.
Other medical/dental applications of 3D technology include the production of customized equipment (e.g., dentures, prosthetics) and medical implants.
Advancements in 3D printing can also support other emerging areas of tech. As just one example, Otego uses 3D printing technology to produce its next-generation thermoelectric generators. Thus, the ability of 3D printing to produce large volumes of products at lower cost could make energy harvesting technology more readily available.
Another notable new technology within 3D printing/printed electronics is the ability to print electronics to formed surfaces, called 3D surface printing. This technology is being used to print antennas directly to the casing of mobile devices. The practice brings down the cost of manufacturing and increases the available space for antenna design for optimal performance.