When Apple announced its latest and greatest iPhones, the XS and XR, no one could deny that these phones were the tech giant’s smartest products yet. They also couldn’t deny that it was the most expensive phone yet.
What if it were possible to create those same iPhones in smaller sizes—and at a lower cost?
Unfortunately, personalization in the technology world until now has been limited to software rather than hardware. While we can choose the color of our new phone, its operating system and amount of memory, our personalization options usually stop about there. However, new advances in the field of 3D printing technology and printed electronics could soon put an end to these limited customization options. With new metal 3D printers and PCB manufacturing methods using functional 3D printing, consumers are about to see entirely new levels of product customization across industries.
Let’s take a look at the history of 3D printing and how its newest technology developments may create a new era in electronic product personalization.
The problem with traditional 3D printing
While 3D printing is indeed a groundbreaking technology, its massive potential has thus far been limited by slow, inefficient processes and a failure to achieve sufficient resolution to implement into real products—especially when it comes to printing product prototypes.
One of the most critical components of the 3D printing process is also one of its slowest: the Printed Circuit Board (PCB), the skeleton of most of today’s electronic products. And as 57% of all 3D printing work is done in the first stages of a new product development (according to The State of 3D Printing 2017 report by Sculpteo), this is one area that can’t afford to fall behind.
Currently, PCBs are limited to being manufactured in an analog subtractive process, in which items of mass production are first built from a large surface of copper and then left with an extra waste of materials. This process is lengthy, involves a high dependence on outside suppliers and can be both expensive and wasteful. In addition, this process doesn’t allow for any new conductive traces, making it impossible to add personalized features to a product without printing a whole new PCB.
How are organizations moving past these inefficient printing practices? The answer lies in digital, additive manufacturing.
Transitioning from analog to digital printing
Many businesses are now exploring additive manufacturing processes for PCBs. Instead of using the traditional method of one large sheet of material to print a PCB and getting rid of excess materials, they can use the additive process to build up the PCB as it prints, therefore eliminating waste and reducing manufacturing time from several weeks down to just hours.
Traditionally, 3D printers have used plastics and metals to do all their printing. But new high-volume production of metal printing, such as the recent release of the Metal Jet 3D Printer from HP, is changing how and where 3D printing is being used across industries. The metal printing process will especially affect the automotive and aviation industry, which will now be able to use these printers to easily produce 3D metal parts at a high volume and at a fraction of the weight, saving up to billions of dollars in fuel through the weight reduction alone.
In addition to these metal printing processes, both producers and consumers of electronic products can look forward to the benefits of printers that are using new nanoparticle technology to suspend metals in ink and print conductive printed electronics, thereby revolutionizing 3D printing prototypes and product customization.
A new era of hardware personalization
To put it simply, the ability to use an additive manufacturing tool to print the printed electronics element is a game-changer. Before this development, a business that wanted to build a different feature for a consumer product dependent on conductive traces would need to produce an entirely new PCB just to support that one new feature.
By using this innovative technology, businesses now only need to print one layer with the conductive trace and add it to the existing consumer product in order to make changes to its features.
This technology will set off a new era of product personalization. From everyday uses such as automotive navigation devices and home appliances to more rare but crucial applications like medical devices and aerospace testing equipment, new printed electronics functionality will have far-reaching effects in a wide array of applications by both consumers and product developers.
Gartner predicts that by 2021, 40% of manufacturing enterprises will establish 3D printing centers of excellence. From mass production of customized hardware for smartphones, to businesses who simply order a small series of custom goods like medical devices for clinical trials, this new accessibility to 3D printing is sure to transform the business models of companies both big and small in the next few years.
And as enterprise-class 3D printers become more widely available from a variety of providers, businesses will find that product personalization doesn’t necessarily mean higher costs. Because 3D printing builds parts additively, it only uses material that is absolutely necessary to build up the product, meaning less material is used and lower manufacturing costs.
With this progress, companies will soon start personalizing consumer products without changing the existing PCB—ushering in an age of product personalization that has never been seen before.