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Additive manufacturing (AM) has come a long way in the last 30 years. The industry revenue for all AM products and services stood at $5.2 billion in 2015, with a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 31 percent in the last five years.1 Such rapid growth in the industry's revenue could be attributed to a variety of factors, including improvements in AM processes and technologies, a wider choice of materials, and increasing applications beyond prototyping and low-volume production.2


While still at an early stage, the applications for 3D-printed electronics seem promising. For example, engineers are experimenting with conformal electronics—stretchable electronics that can be embedded in fitness trackers, smart apparel, and skin patches—as well as applications in complex supply chains that require on-demand manufacturing and mass customization.3 In the near term, developments such as printing electronics in nanoscale and using newer materials such as graphene could lead to additional possibilities in product design.4

Revenue from 3D-printed electronics and consumer products accounted for 13 percent of the larger AM industry, or $681 million, in 2015.5 The growth for this segment is expected to remain strong; AM industry analysts predict that 3D-printed electronics is likely to be the next high-growth application for product innovation, with its market size forecasted to reach $1 billion by 2025.6

This paper closely examines how AM can be used in manufacturing fully functional electromechanical parts as well as the circuitry within a single production cycle. The latter process could create several challenges, which we’ll also address in this paper. Finally, we’ll evaluate select applications where AM surpasses traditional manufacturing for electronics.

Building electronics additively

While research has long focused on how AM uses now-standard materials such as thermoplastics, metals, and ceramics to build the exterior of a product, focus is now turning inward, toward materials that can build a part’s internal circuity. These materials include conductive inks: toners loaded with charged particles that build live circuity as they are laid down on a product with high precision.8

The process of additively producing electronic objects can go by multiple names: 3D-printed electronics, direct wire, conformal electronics, and others.9 In this paper, we will use the term “3D-printed electronics.”

At its simplest level, a typical 3D printer fabricating 3D-printed electronics utilizes two material sources: the base material for the product construct, and conductive material for the circuitry. By using conductive inks in combination with base materials, printers can 3D-print electronic objects as a single, continuous part, effectively creating fully functional electronics that require little or no assembly. In this way, AM can be used to manufacture a variety of sensors, circuits, circuit boards, antennae, batteries, and microelectromechanical systems, among other electronic parts.

The next section discusses key benefits of creating electromechanical parts through additive manufacturing.
Energizing products and supply chains: The underlying benefits of AM

Additive manufacturing enables companies to build nonstandard electronics, complex assemblies, and intricate or curvilinear shapes. In this way, AM designers are free to design innovative electronic objects that could not have been produced through conventional means, and they can optimize product designs for functionality with fewer manufacturing constraints.

hoosing from a limited—but growing—set of materials

In addition to the differences in the process of manufacturing electronics, AM technologies also vary by the type of materials they can use. While a part can be manufactured using standard AM materials such as thermoplastics, metals, and ceramics, electronics must be made using different materials such as conductive silver, copper ink, or newer materials such as graphene. The list of current materials available for 3D-printed electronics is currently somewhat limited, but growing. (See the sidebar “Accelerating intellectual property: A hot area with an increasing number of patents.”)

Graphene, a form of graphite, is particularly noteworthy for manufacturing electronics additively. Graphene is transparent, bendable, and offers high electric and thermal conductivity; these properties make it well suited to applications in integrated circuitry.28 However, the material has challenges: The process for extracting graphene from graphite can be expensive and complex, and supply of high-quality graphene can be inconsistent.29

Nanomaterials, materials with particles of materials such as conductive silver or copper in nanoscale dimensions (10-9 meters), represent another key development in the field of material sciences. The Aerosol Jet technology discussed in the previous section uses carbon nanotubes to build thin film transistors and nanoparticle silver inks for cellphone antennae.30 Sicrys I50TM-119, an example of a conductive ink, consists of silver nanoparticles that can be sintered at room temperature.31 The ink can be used to print electronics on flexible substrates including plastic, fabric, and paper, and enables mass production of antennae printed directly onto phone cases, thereby reducing the cost and size of parts used in smartphone manufacturing.32

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AM and multimaterial inks to manufacture a number of electronics.24 Potential applications include ceramic antennae, camera modules, and lithium batteries. While comparing the costs of additively manufactured products with traditionally manufactured products depends on a number of factors (including design complexity, size, material used, and functionality), the additive approach is better suited to applications where design customization takes precedence over other factors. EoPlex’s technology could also have applications in the field of fluidics: the technique of using a fluid to perform analog or digital operations similar to those performed with electronics. Potential applications include fuel cells, microreactors, and emission control sensors. In the field of energy harvesting, the technology can be used to manufacture microstructures that incorporate the space for parts to move, vibrate, and generate energy.


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