The advent of the Internet of Things has emerged just when 3D printing begins to make solid inroads into manufacturing end-user parts. What do these two developments mean for company operations?
PCB designers are adopting 3D printing to prototype and manufacture parts for IoT devices more quickly and effectively.
IoT and 3D printing might look like the greatest marriage of two buzzwords in the history of tech. The internet of things, after all, unlike the internet of applications and data, takes up 3D space and uses physical materials, including the electronics that control devices and carry their data home. The ability of 3D printers to produce one-offs from CAD designs cheaply and quickly promotes experimentation and is therefore a boon to designers. It should not surprise, then, that in the past few years we’ve begun to see the convergence of IoT and 3D printing, with 3D printing applied to the prototyping and even manufacturing of circuitry and printed circuit boards, much of it for IoT devices.
The term “3D” is used loosely in this context. Good old 2D laser printers have been used by hobbyists to print flat circuit designs. These prints, transferred to a blank, copper-clad FR4 (flame-resistant fiberglass) board, make the mask that shields the copper from the “etching” acid bath that eats away all the unshielded copper in between your circuit’s conductive traces. Most of the “3D” board prototyping printers now available or in development are actually printing 2D lines of conductive ink — i.e., traces — in 3D space, using printheads that can be directed along X, Y and Z axes.