A Plug-in that Connects CAD Software to 3D Printer

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Nano Dimension's DragonFly 2020 Pro 3D printer is a highly accurate and versatile inkjet deposition and curing system for printing professional multilayer circuit boards, structural electronics and antennas. In a sweeping discussion with Nano Dimension USA President Simon Fried, all my questions were answered about this innovative technology.

Dan Feinberg: Simon, I appreciate you taking the time to provide this update. We are following disruptive technologies closely and I consider 3D printing of circuits one of the most potentially disruptive. Along these lines, I understand that you have an announcement coming up, is that correct?

Fried: Yes, we have just launched an add-in that basically connects our printer straight into the Solidworks CAD environment. We've had a lot of interest in going freeform, and there just isn't that kind of an option with any of the EDA guys, yet. So, we partnered with Solidworks to deliver this capability. We can run straight from STL files, this way you can design your circuit, electrified part, or antenna in Solidworks. The add-in allows you to then very easily separate the conductor from insulator and allows you to hit print from within the add-in, and it goes straight over to the printer without any more interfacing, thereby allowing people to create fully freeform geometries and shapes.

Feinberg: Basically, you'd be able to use the Solidworks MCAD software, and then print directly to the DragonFly. Is that correct? If so, that is a major thing.

Fried: Exactly. It opens our technology to a whole new community of users and as a result, also a whole range of new use cases. It was triggered, to a great extent, by folks in the antenna community who said, "Look, we could use that Z dimension to get better reception, better transmission out of a smaller, lighter part." An example of this is our collaboration with Harris Corporation. They're certainly looking at applications of RF in satellites. If you do more with less material or less space, that's obviously really interesting for applications where weight, space and shape are critical. Now, I must point out that we don't have an additional support ink for the printer, which would allow for things like underside cavities or overhangs, so it's not fully 3D in the sense of the shapes possible with the structural polymer part; it’s what you might call a 2.5D object with 3D wiring.

Feinberg: We've been getting a number of press releases from you over the last couple of years, but they seem to be coming out at an accelerated rate recently. Particularly about the units that you're selling that are going into use now. They're not just at shows anymore. That's something I want to ask you about. Let me ask you just a couple of very specific things about 3D printing, because some of our readers may not be that familiar with it. What do you feel are the key advantages of using 3D printing for making circuit boards? Where does it really shine?

Fried: I think this speaks to the increase and type of press releases we've had recently, in that we essentially unveiled the commercially available system in November 2017. Regarding the areas where this technology really shines, there are many, and it would get us into a lot of specifics and details. Which verticals are showing the most interest and who are the early adopters? It's certainly the defense community, for example, in aerospace, that are firstly very interested in the secrecy aspects. They're able to work on and develop circuitry that nobody outside of the team that's designing the parts has any insight into. There is no outsourcing.

Feinberg: That's a good point. That's something I hadn't thought about before.

Fried: The defense community normally have the worst time when it comes to purchasing. They have a limited number of suppliers. They have all kinds of regulations about sending design data to third-parties for prototyping. Which suppliers can be used and what can be shared? Who can see what? They are also limited in terms of the prices they get because they can only source from a limited number of suppliers, and their internal procedures are so stringent that their buying cycle is often much longer than other industries.

It's partly the secrecy aspect, but it also enables them then to dramatically speed up the cycles. If they're currently paying top dollar and still only getting turnaround times of, at best, two weeks, probably more like three weeks on average, then they win on secrecy, but at the same time it improves their ability to move quickly. That's one area where you have those two things, secrecy and speed/flexibility really coming to the fore. Then we have the research institutes. We had an announcement about a printer going to the University of Technology of Sydney. There was another about NTU University in Singapore, and about a month ago, one going to the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

DragonFly.jpgThese types of institutions want to be able to test and iterate ideas. You have three or four ideas, which is what you want when you're experimenting. They want to be able to compare as quickly as they possibly can. They are all also part of that pull towards enabling the non-PCB type of circuitry, which we are doing now with the DragonFly 2020 Pro 3D Printer. We are enabling objects to be developed that can’t be made using any other processes today. 

Feinberg: I remember the days when every government agency had its own circuit board fab facility. In fact, my early days in electronics were at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Labs. Everybody had their own circuit board shops because of exactly the reasons you're saying. They also would turn out some volume of circuit boards for production. They don't have them anymore. This allows them to get back into that without setting up plating tanks and etching machines and all the other stuff that you've got to go through.

Fried: I think it was probably quite similar if you go back and look at the OEMS, probably pre-dates my PCB experience, but if you could go back to the '80s and probably early '90s, you would find a lot of the OEMs also had a full production line. At the very least, a smaller capability to do things in-house. That pretty much went away as things moved to Asia. They got left behind and couldn't possibly keep up with the rate of the industry change. You don't want the chemicals for the etching. You don't want the human error when it comes to getting all those layers pressed together.

Feinberg: What you're saying is exactly true. I'll give you an example that goes back to the days when I first got involved in circuit board manufacturing, in the '60s and early '70s. At that time, I was living in the Washington, D.C. area, and I was covering Virginia quite a bit. I had customers with circuit board plants in Virginia. Three circuit board plants all owned by General Electric, all in the same state, and even though they didn't admit it, they were all competing. The redundant cost for that company had to be outrageous. They would start out by saying, "We just have to get our boards quickly. We need to make prototypes." Next thing you know, they're expanding their production. It was crazy. It really was. Of course, Western Electric and AT&T also had three different facilities in that area. One of them was huge.

Fried: I'd love to see the same kind of evolution with our printer. We're beginning to see is this with companies that have the system. The guys down the corridor hear that the system is available, and maybe there might be a bit of free time, so they're turning into a little bit of an internal service bureau. Once that gets trialed and tested out, my own assumption is this: What will start with one printer within X organization will expand to other locations because it comes with a seal of approval of having been tried and tested by that early adopting team. I believe that companies that don’t start adopting additive technologies will be left behind.


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