3D printing gets a little closer to offering “a factory in a box”

Nano Dimension’s DragonFly 2020 is among a group of possibly game-changing industrial-level 3D printers set to become available this year. Brent Balinski spoke to company co-founder Simon Fried about what it offers.

 

Keeping IP safe during electronics prototyping

There’s a growing interest in a small Israeli 3D printing business, which formed in 2012: roughly the year that the world started to get curious about 3D printing.

Nano Dimension debuted its DragonFly 2020 unit – able to print multi-layer industrial-quality PCBs out of conductive and dielectric inks (mimicking FR4 insulation) – last November. It is set to begin selling its first units roughly that time this year.

It was the best-performing stock on the Tel Aviv stock exchange in 2015, according to Reuters, despite not having sold a printer.

And there was curiosity in it this week at Solidworks World 2016 in Dallas, where Nano Dimension’s sportscar-like machine was on display.

“They’ve put a factory in a box, for electronics design,” Lou Feinstein, Manager of Portfolio Management : High Technology, I.O.T and Mechatronics products at Solidworks, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“We’ve always talked about putting a factory in a box, but there are all these technical challenges. We’re starting to see these go away. You can print plastics, you can print cables and wires. Now you can print circuit boards.”

The machine’s purpose is rapid prototyping PCBs, allowing electronics manufacturers to keep iterations (and IP) in-house. Gerber files are transformed, bottom-up, into prototypes in two micron layers, with an accuracy level of 0.01 mm. The margin for error is tiny.

“It’s important to say for this environment, this isn’t ‘print an object and if there’s a little bit of roughness on one of the sides, then you sand it down and everything’s fine,’” Nano Dimension co-founder and chief business officer, Simon Fried, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“A PCB is binary: it either works or it doesn’t. And if you print something and there’s an error in your print somewhere, then your print is maybe something pretty, but it has no use.”

What’s the frequency?

The invention uses a nanoparticle synthesis technology which had been developed at Hebrew University of Jerusalem for around a decade, explained Fried.

The company has two R&D labs; one is dedicated to silver nanoparticle ink, the other to dielectric nano-inks. Of 50 employees, 45 are in R&D, across a split of mechatronics, nano-chemistry and software.

Its headquarters are in Ness Ziona Science Park in an area of unusually strong inkjet expertise: its neighbours include HP Indigo, Stratasys and Orbotech.   

Besides being able to briskly create the guts of prototype electronics products in house, other claimed benefits of the DragonFly include replacing environmentally damaging chemical etching processes, and the possibility of very high levels of geometric complexity within printed boards. Flexible objects are also possible.

The properties of what can be made will only get more sophisticated, too, said Fried.

“The Rogers Corporation in the United States have a lot of technology around insulation where instead of using fibreglass and epoxy they start turning to ceramics, things that are able to cope with very, very high speed circuitry,” he said.

“So we’ve started to enlarge the range of frequencies that our materials can support. And we’ve made it most of the way up to also offer solutions that are FR4 plus, medium/high frequency, and we’re touching the low-end of the teflon and ceramic-type materials.”

“Telecom guys are really interested in very high frequencies. They’re companies that are really helping us to test things that we don’t know to test, and we don’t have the equipment to test 100 megahertz, 100 gigahertz environments.”

Nano inks are currently available from the company. The price to print the pictured item was given as “around $US 30” in materials.

Initial, small-scale deliveries of printers to industrial partners are scheduled for late in 2016. Production will be in-house at first, but a contract manufacturing partnership with Flex (formerly Flextronics) has been announced if demand picks up.

Fried would not give specifics on the price of the industrial-grade units, but said this would compare to the higher-quality production machines from Stratasys.

Interesting times

The hype among the public around 3D printing has arguably died down lately, but in terms of what it can achieve, the possibilities have never seemed so vast.

This year will probably see long-awaited technology described as “game-changing” available from HP and Carbon3D, as well as shipping beginning at Voxel8 (another company printing in conductive inks).

Nowadays there might not be so many articles written predicting “a 3D printer in every home”, or as much fuss made about 3D printed figurines or other tchotchkes as in 2012 or thereabouts.

However, 3D printing is now far more interesting than when it was exciting.

“As with anything that’s new and perhaps over-hyped, all kinds of things happen. And it’s quite similar to the year 2000 when all you had to do was register a domain name and you could be a millionaire, because you were doing internet. 3D went through a similar cycle,” said Fried.

“If you don’t have a meaningful, end-use application, it’s a toy. And toys are great, but they’re not actually going to change the world,” he continued, gesturing towards a nearby giveaway stress-ball shaped as a hat.

“They might make a hat, for example, but there are other ways to make hats. And – no offence to Texas – but hats aren’t that exciting.

Manufacturers’ Monthly attended Solidworks World 2016 as a guest of Dassault Systemes.