Embracing the Future

Integrating 3D PCB Printers into University Curriculums

BotFactory Inc., Afnan Islam

Introduction

The manufacturing landscape has undergone a revolutionary transformation from traditional subtractive methods to the innovative realm of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing. This technological evolution is not confined to industrial applications; it is also reshaping educational paradigms, particularly within engineering and technology disciplines. 

History of 3D PCB Printing

The journey of 3D printed PCB has been marked by significant milestones. While the exact timeline is difficult to trace due to the rapid pace of innovation in this field, it's clear that the technology has evolved significantly over the years. The combination of PCBs and microfluidics, for instance, has been a game-changer, allowing for the integration of electrodes, sensors, and electronics in a way that was previously impossible (1). The table below shows the historical milestones achieved throughout the years.
Era​ Key Developments ​Impact
​Early Days (1980s-2000s)
  • ​Stereolithography & FDM pave the way.
  • 3D printing revolutionizes rapid PCB prototyping.
  • Inkjet printing emerges for conductive materials.
  • ​ Foundation for future advancements.
  • Faster, more efficient development cycles.
  •  Early steps towards printed electronics.
​Breakthroughs & Convergence (2010s-Present)
 
  • ​ Development of high-conductivity inks (silver nanoparticles, etc.).
  • Multi-material printing incorporates dielectrics & functional inks.
  • Conformal printing opens doors for wearables & flexible applications.
  • Release of BotFactory Squink via Kickstarter
  • ​ "Printed circuit boards-on-demand" for rapid prototyping & low-volume production.
  •  Significant impact in bioprinting, diagnostics, & drug discovery.
  • Early stage adaptation of additively manufactured PCBs
​Game-Changers
 
  • ​Merging 3D printing with traditional PCB fabrication.
  • Integration of microfluidics with 3D printing ("lab-on-a-chip" devices).
  • ​ "Printed circuit boards-on-demand" for rapid prototyping & low-volume production.
  •  Significant impact in bioprinting, diagnostics, & drug discovery.
Present & Beyond​
  • ​Research on novel conductive, dielectric, & functional inks.
  • Multi-jet printing for simultaneous material deposition.
  • Bridging the gap between prototyping & mass production.
  • In 2017, BotFactory introduced the SV2 printer
     
  • ​Improved properties, biocompatibility, & flexibility.
  • Increased design freedom & functionality.
  •  the SV2 printer has been enabling labs around the world to prototype complex multi-layer boards.

Adaptation of 3D PCB Printers in Industry and Academia

The adoption of 3D printers and 3D PCB printers in both industry and academia has been driven by the need for rapid prototyping and research. In the industry, 3D printing has been hailed for its cost-effectiveness, speed, and versatility over traditional manufacturing techniques (2). The ability to quickly produce prototypes or small batches of products without the need for expensive tooling or molds has made 3D printing a valuable tool in many sectors, from automotive to healthcare. In academia, 3D PCB printers are being used for research and teaching purposes. The technology allows students to gain hands-on experience with electronics manufacturing, fostering a deeper understanding of the principles and processes involved. For instance, secondary school students have found 3D modelling programs and 3D printers to be effective in developing fast prototypes and facilitating understanding (2).

Impact on University Curriculums and Research

The adoption of 3D PCB printing in universities has significantly impacted both curriculums and research. Courses now incorporate hands-on training with 3D PCB printers, enabling students to design and prototype their electronic projects in real-time. This practical experience is invaluable, preparing students for the challenges of the modern workforce.In research, 3D PCB printing has facilitated rapid prototyping, allowing researchers to test and iterate their designs with unprecedented speed and efficiency. Projects that once took weeks or months can now be completed in days, accelerating the pace of innovation and discovery.

Figure 1: A) Close-up top view of a fully assembled circular diaphragm pressure sensor with resistor locations. B) Side view of the assembled sensor showing the stack order: Test chamber bottom, gasket, sensor, then test chamber top.

Case Studies: Universities Leading the Way

Several universities have been at the forefront of integrating 3D PCB printing into their programs:
  • Cornell University: Researchers at Cornell's SonicMEMs lab have developed laser-induced graphene sensors using BotFactory's 3D printer for PCB technology, showcasing the potential for innovative electronic devices (Figure 1) (3).
  • Rice University: Focused on teaching essential prototyping skills, Rice University emphasizes the importance of 3D printing in first-year design courses, preparing students for future engineering challenges (4).
  • North Carolina State University: The university used  BotFactory's Squink PCB Printer to print highly conductive traces on fabric, achieving a significant advancement in wearable electronics by maintaining the fabric's original properties while ensuring conductivity comparable to traditional substrates (5).

Advantages of Additive Manufacturing in Academic Settings

The adoption of additive manufacturing and specifically, additive manufacturing of electronics, offers numerous benefits for universities:

  • Enhanced Learning Experiences: Students gain hands-on experience with cutting-edge technologies, bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application.
  • Innovation in Research: AM allows for rapid prototyping and testing of complex designs, accelerating the pace of research and innovation.
  • Customization and Flexibility: The ability to produce customized components on-demand supports a wide range of research projects and student initiatives.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Reducing the need for expensive manufacturing setups and materials, AM technologies enable cost-effective prototyping and manufacturing solutions.

The Future of Additive Manufacturing in Academia

As universities continue to embrace additive manufacturing, the future looks promising. Ongoing advancements in materials science and AM technologies are set to further enhance the capabilities and applications of 3D printing in academia. The collaboration between educational institutions and industry partners will play a pivotal role in driving innovation and preparing the next generation of engineers and technologists for the challenges of tomorrow. For more insights into the world of 3D PCB printing, you can explore BotFactory's blogs, which cover a range of topics from the latest research developments to practical applications of their products. For instance, you can learn about how researchers at NC State are using BotFactory's technology to print highly conductive traces on fabric, or how laser-induced graphene pressure sensors are being developed using 3D PCB printing.