BOSTON, April 5, 2022 / PRNewswire / – 3D electronics is an emerging manufacturing approach that allows electronics to be integrated into or on the surface of objects. Although it has long been used to add antennas and simple conductive interconnects to the surface of 3D injection-molded plastic objects, more complex circuits are increasingly being added to surfaces made from a variety of materials using new techniques.
Additionally, 3D additive electronics allow you to integrate complete circuits within an object, offering multiple benefits including simplified manufacturing and new form factors. With 3D electronics, adding electronic functionality no longer requires incorporating a rigid, planar PCB into an object, then wiring the switches, sensors, power sources, and other relevant external components.
There are three main approaches to 3D electronics, each discussed in detail in the new IDTechEx report “3D Electronics / Additive Electronics 2022-2032”: Applying Electronics to a 3D Surface, In-Mold Electronics, and Fully Additive 3D Electronics.
Applying electronics to a 3D surface
The most established approach to adding electrical functionality to the surface of 3D objects is direct laser structuring (LDS), in which an additive in injection molded plastic is selectively activated by a laser. This forms a pattern which is subsequently metallized by chemical plating. LDS experienced tremendous growth about a decade ago and is used to manufacture hundreds of millions of devices each year, of which approximately 75% are antennas. However, this metallization method can only be applied to injection molded components with an additive and allows only a single layer of metal to be deposited thereby limiting the complexity of the circuit.
Given these limitations, other approaches to applying conductive traces to the surfaces of 3D objects are gaining ground. The extrusion of conductive paste, a viscous suspension composed of multiple conductive flakes, is already used for a small portion of antennas and is the preferred approach for systems that deposit entire circuits on 3D surfaces. Aerosol blast and laser-induced forward transfer (LIFT) are other emerging digital deposition technologies, both of which have higher resolutions and rapid deposition of a wide range of materials, respectively.
In-mold electronics (IME), where electronics are molded / assembled prior to thermoforming into a 3D component, facilitates the transition to greater electronics integration, especially where capacitive touch sensing and l ‘lighting. By enabling the integration of multiple features built into components with 3D thermoformed surfaces, IME offers multiple benefits over conventional mechanical switches, including weight and material consumption reduction by up to 70%, and much easier assembly.
IME is an extension of the established in-mold decoration (IMD), in which plastic sheets with a decorative coating are converted into three dimensions via thermoforming and subsequent injection molding. IME differs from IMD in initial screen printing of conductive thermoformable inks, followed by deposition of electrically conductive adhesives and mounting of SMDs (surface mount devices, currently mainly LEDs).
The long-term goal for IME is to become an established platform technology, much the same as rigid PCBs today. Once this is achieved, getting a component / circuit produced will be a simple matter of submitting an electronic design file. Along with greater acceptance of the technology, this will require clear design rules, materials that conform to established standards, and most importantly, the development of electronic design tools.
Fully printed 3D electronics
Arguably the most innovative approach to additive electronics is fully 3D printed electronics, in which dielectric materials (usually thermoplastics) and conductive materials are sequentially deposited. Combined with positioned SMD components, this results in a circuit, potentially with a complex multilayer structure embedded in a 3D plastic object. The core value proposition is that every object and integrated circuit can be produced with a different design without the expense of making jigs and molds each time.
The fully 3D printed electronics are therefore suitable for applications where a wide range of components need to be produced in a short time. The technology also holds promise for applications where custom shape and even functionality are important, such as medical devices such as hearing aids and prosthetics. The ability of 3D printed electronics to produce different components using the same equipment and the associated decoupling of unit cost and volume could also enable the move to on-demand manufacturing.
The challenges for fully 3D printed electronics are that manufacturing is fundamentally a much slower process than producing parts via injection molding as each layer must be deposited sequentially. Although the printing process can be accelerated by using more nozzles, it is best aimed at applications where personalization offers a tangible advantage. Ensuring reliability is also a challenge as post-hoc repairs are impossible with built-in electronics – one strategy is to use image analysis to check each layer and perform any repairs before the next layer is deposited.
Comprehensive analysis and market forecasts
The new IDTechEx “3D Electronics / Additive Electronics 2022-2032” report evaluates competing technologies that will allow PCBs to be replaced with integrated electronics, saving space, weight and reducing manufacturing complexity. It covers electronic functionality on 3D surfaces, in-mold electronics (IME), and fully 3D printed electronics.
The report includes multiple company profiles based on interviews with key players in different technologies. We also develop 10-year market forecasts for each technology and application sector, outlined both by turnover and by area. We anticipate the gradual decline of LDS and the growth of extruded paste for consumer electronic antennas and increased use of extrusion and aerosols, particularly for automotive applications. The strongest growth is expected for IME, which we expect will be widely adopted in car interiors and home appliance control panels.
IDTechEx guides your strategic business decisions through its research, subscription and consulting products, helping you profit from emerging technologies. For more information, contact research@IDTechEx.com or visit www.IDTechEx.com.
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