Circuit boards keep on becoming cheaper to print but at the same time those used in high tech applications keep on becoming more complicated making them more expensive to print at the same time. For a high tech item that is going into mass production like a tablet computer the cost per unit isn’t very high, but on short runs the cost of custom circuit boards can be prohibitively high and this may be stifling innovation is small businesses and even research departments. The ideal thing would be to have the ability to create one off circuit boards cheaply using a rapid prototyping service but prototyping a circuit board isn’t easy to do, certainly not cheaply. 3D printing has already revolutionized rapid prototyping services for many product types and it looks like it could be about to do the same for circuit boards. Basic circuit boards have already been created using 3D printers but the high tech circuit boards we are talking about will need to be incredibly detailed and made ready to add resistors, capacitors and micro processors, which can be standardized parts.
Many items that can otherwise be made cheaply with rapid prototyping services based on 3D printing or even put into production for small numbers with 3D printing do face problems if they need a custom circuit board and the same is true for products made of standardized parts.
It is envisaged that rapid prototyping services with 3D printers that can print circuit boards may actually be able to print an entire product with moving parts and circuit boards in place in one go. This would potentially allow circuit boards to be made to fit much more neatly into products as well: currently a product is designed so that a circuit board can then be added, which will be invariably rectangular and flat.
In the short term printing bespoke circuit boards will allow products to be made easily in small numbers with complicated circuit boards and will even allow for producers of products to include bespoke circuit boards for each client based on their specific needs. Producers could with 3D printing set up from a 3D CAD file easily add features as required and copy the innovations of competitors in days rather than months.
In the long term the use of circuit boards is even more exciting if the potential of 3D printers that most believe there is is realized. For now still firmly rooted in rapid prototyping services some see a future where 3D printing will dominate manufacturing. When 3D printing becomes the primary way of manufacturing and replaces tooling machines it will suddenly become easy to customize every aspect of a product such as material, color, shape and so on. If circuit boards can just as easily be customized we may be able to see a future where everyone’s PC is customized to their needs and everyone’s car has the exact electronics and features they opted for with hundreds of permutations available to everyone.
The ability to work with circuit boards could become a common skill as well as people in the future design their electronics on their home computers before sending them to a company, similar to today’s rapid prototyping services, to print their creations, though at a far more affordable cost.