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There has been much talk in recent years about 3D printing, a type of additive manufacturing that has been used to create everything from plastic toys and trinkets to high-end industrial prototypes.
In the near future, we will enter an era where electronic devices "join the club" and are printed, rather than assembled. They will be fabricated layer-by-layer as a single object, rather than assembled from separate mechanical, electrical, and optical parts.
Unlike today's devices that house PCBs within a separate shell, 3D printing will enable electronics to be embedded entirely within the structure of the device itself.
Let's take a closer look at how we will get to this stage, and the implications it will have for PCB manufacturers.
Development No. 1: 3D printing Software
When we talk about 3D printing, we're really talking about several different pieces of a puzzle: hardware (the 3D printer), software (used to prepare 3D models), and materials (the stuff that a printer is able extrude, jet, bind, cure, or sinter—plastics, ceramics, and other materials).
Autodesk's Spark is an open 3D printing platform that makes it easier for hardware manufacturers, software developers, materials scientists, product designers, and others to participate in and benefit from this technology. Spark encourages all members of the 3D printing industry to move additive manufacturing technology forward and push the boundaries of 3D printing.
Development No. 2: Materials Innovation
One of the key barriers for 3D printing has been a lack of innovation on the materials front. Fortunately, recent advances in materials science have enabled the combination of high-conductivity inks with standard 3D printing plastics.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of The PCB Magazine.