The 3D printing revolution may be here: Nano Dimensions’ Dragonfly 2020 Printer promises to produce industrial-grade printed circuit boards – i.e., the building blocks of any electronic device
Sometimes a big announcement comes across your desk whose magnitude is obscured by a nondescript press release. Today is a case in point: Israel’s Nano Dimensions has raised $11 million from private investors to develop 3D printers that print layered circuit boards for the electronics industry.
This is a big deal because it potentially disrupts the way consumer electronics are made and distributed. China’s low-cost factories have much to fear from this development, as does anyone in the electronic device business. 3DPrint.com, a trade publication, wrote last month that, “The 3D printing industry may have just gotten one step closer to finding its Holy Grail with the announcement of Nano Dimension’s new PCB – Printed Circuit Board – 3D printer.”
Simon Fried, the company’s CMO and co-founder told Geektime that the first machines will be rolled out in 2016, and will initially be most useful to electronics manufacturers who want to make the prototyping process faster. But eventually, he agrees, the implications could be revolutionary.
What are PCBs?
PCB is short for printed circuit board, which is basically the electronic infrastructure of any electronic device you can think of, such as your television, remote control, laptop, or smartphone.
But despite their name, PCBs are currently not printed at all. Instead, you start with a sheet of fiberglass covered in copper and a manufacturer takes away copper they don’t need in a process called chemical etching. Usually this takes place in a factory in China or Taiwan, although the higher-end PCBs are still manufactured in Europe or the United States.
“There’s a lot of waste, a lot of environmental damage in this process,” Fried told Geektime.
At present, even the prototypes for new PCBs are manufactured in the Far East. So if you are a smartphone manufacturer, you would create your Gerber file (the digital files PCB designers use), send it to a factory abroad, and then wait a few weeks until you get back your prototype and can begin to test it.
With Nano Dimensions’ machine, you will be able to create a prototype locally within a few hours.
“For larger companies that buy the printer, it will speed up their development cycle. For smaller companies, if you’re a startup and you live or die by how quickly you can get something to market, this could make or break you,” Fried asserted.
The first of its kind?
Fried claimed that the DragonFly 2020 will be the first 3D printer that can print multilayer circuit boards that meet international industry standards as determined by the IPC. The company has also developed nanotechnology-based ink products, which it will sell as well.
“We decided ink jet technology was the best for this. That is the route we went down.”
Although there are other 3D printers out there that print circuit boards, Fried explains that these are not industrial grade PCBs, but rather electronic components for hobbyists and Makers.
“There’s Voltera in Canada, Squink in New York and a company in Australia called Cartesian. In the last 12 months, all these companies have announced printers that print circuit boards using conductive ink.”
But none of them are printing multilayer circuits, which are the building blocks of more complex electronic devices.
“It’s almost like phyllo pastry,” explains Fried. “If you take the main board in your phone, you’ll see that green PCB but inside it you have 14 or maybe 16 layers. They all have to be separate from each other but also connected to each other in such a way that eventually you get a huge area of wiring in a very small card.”
From the frying pan into the fire
Beyond allowing device manufacturers to prototype much more quickly, the Dragonfly will be useful to companies that want to keep their IP secret.
According to a recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Intellectual property (IP) protection is the No. 1 challenge for multinational corporations operating in China. According to the U.S. government, China accounted for nearly 80% of all IP thefts from U.S.-headquartered organizations in 2013, amounting to an estimated $300 billion in lost business. Among European manufacturers, the loss of IP in China reduced potential profits by 20%.”
Among these are the famous iPhone 6 leaks from Chinese factories, as well as leaks of Gerber files.
“If you’re a company that works in defense in the United States or Israel, these are sensitive systems, you don’t want to send these files abroad,” Fried noted.
In addition, defense manufacturers sometimes need to make a small batch of highly complex devices.
“If you’re Lockheed Martin and you need to make four devices that are 27 layers each, chances are it will be cheaper for you to do on the 3D printer. Also you can print spare parts when you need them,” he added.
Fried said that he foresees a point when a local manufacturer in Israel or the United States buys 10 or 100 3D printers and creates their own small factory.
Could this be the beginning of China’s decline?
If 3D printing locally gets cheap enough, this could spell the beginning of the end of China as the world’s manufacturer.
At the same time, the other interest group with something to fear are device manufacturers themselves. What if someone got hold of a Gerber file for the iPhone or the latest wearable and just printed it out from the comfort of their home? That won’t happen, you say? No one will pirate digital files of PCBs protected by copyright?
Just ask any musician or independent filmmaker whose livelihood has been decimated by piracy how likely that is.
Fried said such things won’t be possible right away. First of all, the initial version of the Dragonfly 2020 will cost “a few tens of thousands” of dollars, so it won’t be affordable for consumers.
“It will be the cheapest printer that can deliver that printing resolution but it doesn’t mean it’s the kind of thing you can have at home. Precision doesn’t come cheap.”
In terms of the iPhone specifically, Fried mentioned, with the caveat that it would be totally illegal and wrong, that even if someone got hold of the digital files of such a device, “the iPhone might have some things that go beyond the general industry standards.”
At the moment, the printer can only create industry-standard PCBs, which aren’t complex enough to reproduce products such as Apple devices. But that will change with future iterations of the machine.
“In the future our printer could have even higher resolution, and you could make miniaturized PCBs,” he noted.
But in theory, “if someone has a Gerber file you can print the PCB.”
That just leaves the chips and other advanced components.
“It will be while before they are truly printable as there just aren’t enough inks/materials to be able to make everything. Simpler things like resistors and basic sensors can be printed with existing materials though.”
But we’re getting very close to the day when you can download a smartphone Gerber file through a site like Pirate Bay, then print out the device at a local 3D printing shop like Kinkos that has one of Nano Dimensions’ machines.
“There will be copyright issues,” Fried remarked understatedly.
Electronics wants to be free!
Fried speculated further about how 3D-printed electronics could transform the future.
Have you ever stopped to think why your smartphone, your laptop and various other devices are in the shape of rectangles?
It’s because the current technology used to manufacture PCBs requires them to be made in layers. All these devices are designed around the shape of the PCB.
“But with a 3D printer, you could make a circuit that could be in the shape of a cube or pyramid. The wiring could be any way you want. You could have a smartphone in the shape of a sphere.”
“With the Internet of things or wearables, electronics wants to be flexible and portable, not just in a rectangle.”
Did you hear that readers? Electronics wants to be free!
Fried explained that this is not something his company’s printer can do at present. But that as the result of 3D printing interacting with electronics, electronics will eventually step out of this flat layered environment. “It will be free-form 3-dimensional. It’s not where we are yet. But it’s at the core of what we’re doing.”
Nano Dimensions was founded in 2012 by Sharon Fima, Amit Dror, Simon Fried and Dagi Ben-Noon. It was “under-the-radar and bootstrapped” until August 2014, when the company merged with a listed company on the Tel Aviv stock exchange that had been dormant.
“Instead of going to a VC or angel investor, we did what was called a reverse merger. We raised about $4 million and an additional $1.25 million from the Office of the Chief Scientist.”
The new investors in this round include Israeli high-tech executives, private investors and funds from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel, including Leader Capital Markets.
Amit Dror, Nano Dimension’s CEO, said in a statement “We thank the investors for their vote of confidence in the company. This is a substantial amount that will enable Nano Dimension to achieve its business goals in the upcoming years.”