What’s the Role of 3D Printing in Embedded Systems?

Experts Weigh In

3D printing has gone from being a technology on the outskirts of embedded system design, to one that’s becoming a common tool for many design teams. On one hand people are crafting 3D printed enclosures of electronic systems—either for prototyping or end use. On the other hand, the idea of embedding electronic circuitry within 3D printed materials has gained momentum. To gather insights on these technology and design trends, I spoke with expert representatives from four innovative companies in the 3D printer business.

By Jeff Child, Editor-in-Chief

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Mark Norfolk, President, Fabrisonic
www.fabrisonic.com

JEFF CHILD: 3D printing has evolved into a key technology for the design and development of embedded electronics-based systems. What do you see as the important trends today along those lines?

Mark Norfolk

MARK NORFOLK: Historically, electronics embedded using 3D printing has been relegated to embedding wires or 3D printed conductors in a 3D printed polymer. Recent advancement in solid state metal 3D printing has enabled engineers to now bury electronics into metal 3D printed components. Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM) is a 3D metal printing technology that uses high frequency ultrasonic vibrations to scrub metal foils together layer by layer as opposed to using a directed energy heat source (for example, laser, e-beam and so on). Ultrasonic joining is a solid state (no melting) process, which enables direct integration of temperature sensitive components into the 3D metal part unlike fusion based processes. The low temperature nature allows sensors, communication circuits and actuators to be embedded into fully dense metallic structures for lasting security and reliability.

To embed electronics into a metal part, a channel or chamber is cut during the CNC stage of the UAM process. The electronic sensor or circuit is then placed into the void and consolidated with the additive stage. In the case of sensors, metal flow in the UAM process creates a strong mechanical joint between the matrix and sensor material, which in turn enables excellent strain transfer to the metal matrix for stress and temperature measurements (Figure 1).

Figure 1
(a) Fiber optic strain gauge embedded in an aluminum bracket using metal 3D printing. (b) CT scan of embedded fiber optic

A flat roof can be created over control circuitry allowing for a small air gap that can be potted or sealed. This allows high power electronics to be buried into a copper or aluminum box for high thermal conductivity. Furthermore, 3D printing allows for cooling channels to be printed surrounding the individual high-power components (Figure 2).

Figure 2
(a) Packaging concept using metal 3D printing and electronic 3D printing.
(b) Integrated electronics in a custom thermal shroud

J.C.: What have been some of the important trends and capabilities in 3D printing materials as they relate to electronic systems?

NORFOLK: For Fabrisonic, a significant portion of recent work has been in engineered materials for the interface between electronics and 3D printed metal. For instance, coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) mismatch is an ever-present problem in traditional manufacturing. Ultrasonic welding allows printing of dissimilar metals in the same part. Thus, a gradient of CTEs can be printed through thickness in a cooling device. Fabrisonic has worked with materials such as molybdenum and invar to address the CTE gap. Similarly layers of heavy metals such as tantalum and tungsten have been integrated into 3D printed structures for radiation hardening (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Layers of tantalum printed in an aluminum laminate for radiation hardening

J.C.: How have 3D printers used by electronic system developers changed in the past couple years? What changes and advances do you see within the next couple years?

NORFOLK: Electronic system developers have a growing toolbox of 3D printing options. As any specific traditional manufacturing method cannot hope to make every electronics package, similarly no one 3D printing technology can meet every need. New tools are coming on the market as existing tools evolve to meet the needs of industry. Future improvements in 3D printed electronics will surely include:

• Better conductive inks that have lower resistance
• Integration of multiple 3D printing processes into a single production machine. For instance, technologies such as Aerosol Jet could be integrated into a UAM system to print electronics into a 3D printed metal part all in one integrated system
• Automated methods for inserting conventional electronics (wires, chips and such) into 3D printed builds live during the print job
• New electronic designs that take advantage of 3D printing’s ability to integrate in three dimensions

J.C.: We’ve talked in general so far about technology trends in 3D printing? What’s an example of a Fabrisonic system that exemplifies those trends in action?

NORFOLK: All of Fabrisonic systems are capable of embedding electronics. UAM is ultrasonic welding on a semi-continuous basis where solid metal objects are built up to a net three-dimensional shape through a succession of welded metal tapes. Through periodic machining operations, detailed features are milled into the object until a final geometry is created by removing excess material. Figure 4 shows a rolling ultrasonic welding system, consisting of two 20,000 Hz ultrasonic transducers and the welding sonotrode.

Figure 4
Shown here is a SonicLayer 4000 metal 3D printer based off a traditional 3-axis CNC mill. The ultrasonic “weld head” is another tool in the tool changer and can be swapped at any point for a traditional end mill. The additive “weld head” is used to print parts near net shape, while the CNC stage is used to mil to exact tolerances and to create internal voids for embedding electronics.

High-frequency ultrasonic vibrations are locally applied to metal foils, held together under pressure, to create a weld. The vibrations of the transducer are transmitted to the disk-shaped welding sonotrode, which in turn creates an ultrasonic solid-state weld between the thin metal tape and the substrate. The continuous rolling of the sonotrode over the plate welds the entire tape to the plate. Successive layers are welded together to build up height. This process is then repeated until a solid component has been created. CNC contour milling is then used to achieve required tolerances and surface finish.
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Clément Moreau, CEO and Co-Founder, Sculpteo
www.sculpteo.com

JEFF CHILD: What is your perspective on where 3D printing technology is today in terms of its application in electronic systems?

Clément Moreau

CLÉMENT MOREAU: 3D printing has been used to produce prototypes of enclosures of electronic systems for decades—and now longer and longer series of such enclosures. We have a growing number of customers using additive manufacturing to produce their final product up to tens of thousands of parts. This delays the costly and painful re-industrialization process of moving to mass manufacturing. Printing a full electronics circuit system—like a computer or a phone—is still really far away. But we see some application with 3D printed electronics for simple functions like powering LEDs, wiring a sensor and so on.

J.C.: When it comes to 3D printed electronics, what do you see as the most important aspect of that capability?

MOREAU: For 3D printed electronics, conductivity is key. The capability to print selectively using materials with high conductivity is progressing.

J.C.: Sounds like you’re optimistic about where the technology is heading. How do you see 3D printing advancing over the next couple years?

MOREAU: 3D printers are definitely evolving in terms of resolution and of versatility in materials. Still, the main use of 3D printing in this context is printing electronic devices enclosure. The ability to print in fire-resistant materials important is very important, for the electrical certification of devices.

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Alexander Crease, Application Engineer, Markforged
www.markforged.com

JEFF CHILD: As an application engineer, what’s your perspective on the role 3D printing plays in the design and development of embedded electronics-based systems?

Alexander Crease

ALEXANDER CREASE: Overall, 3D printing has made it easier for anyone—whether you’re an engineer, designer, artist or manufacturer—to make things. Creating physical models used to be difficult. Either you’d have to pay thousands of dollars and wait weeks for parts to come in, or you’d need to piece something together with what you have on hand. Either way, manufacturing was a large roadblock—especially with multiple prototypes or iterations in the product development cycle. 3D printing has changed all that—serving as a catalyst for simplified production of parts.

With regard to electronic systems, 3D printing suddenly makes prototyping, testing and iteration much more efficient and makes it easier to create custom components. A large part of embedded electronics is its integration into its hardware—the system integration. Alan Rencher, CEO of Media Blackout, uses Markforged 3D printers to print custom TV and media equipment and sees high value in the printers. He says “Even on finished products that we used to have machined, if we need a part that is too expensive or physically not able to be manufactured, we can use the printer to make those parts.” The quick turnaround time and low cost of 3D printing means end-use parts are incredibly affordable to create. You can go through multiple iteration cycles in days, improving your product’s function and performance all while cutting costs. There’s also the design freedom inherent to additive manufacturing that allows you to incorporate your electronics into your product seamlessly. Both of those combined mean that—whether you’re working on a prototype or a custom end-use part—you can use 3D printing to create a professional, seamless and efficient integrated system.

J.C.: Everyone says that the capabilities of 3D printing are tied to the kinds of materials with which they can print. How do you see that aspect of 3D printing?

CREASE: 3D printing materials have only increased in strength and quality. With innovations like Continuous Fiber Fabrication (CFF), 3D printing has expanded from rough ”looks-like” mockups and prototypes to end-use applications, where durable, long lasting parts are needed. These types of high-strength composite materials mean that the critical parts for your electronics housings, fixtures and frames are strong, cost-effective and easy to make. Many electronics companies now turn to high-strength 3D printing to create strong, lightweight setups for their equipment. For example, Radiant Images developed a 360-camera rig (Figure 5) using a Markforged 3D printing system and saw 63% weight savings and 77% manufacturing time savings when compared to its previously machined counterpart. And it functions just the same.

Figure 5
Radiant Images developed this 360-camera rig using a Markforged 3D printing system and saw 63% weight savings and 77% manufacturing time savings when compared to its previously machined counterpart.

J.C.: It’s clear that the circle of people comfortable using 3D printers keeps getting wider. What’s behind that trend, and what advances in the future do you see attracting engineers to 3D printing?

CREASE: Until recently, 3D printing has been exclusive to mechanical engineers and technicians who know how to design for, operate and repair the machines. Today, a lot of the major improvements to printing we see are in a printer’s ease-of-use. You no longer have to be a trained professional to understand how it all works. It’s getting easier and easier for anyone to design the parts they need, load them into 3D printing software and hit go—then have a part ready in hours.

Looking forward, design optimization for 3D printing has been a growing trend. 3D design software can help engineers design parts that are optimized for the printing process. This not only makes printing even more accessible, but also allows for performance optimization of the parts you need. The introduction of powerful software tools that do the design thinking for you to make parts lighter, stronger, and more effective is something many engineers will be able to take advantage of to create high-performance designs right off the bat. That paves the way for more creativity and innovation in product design.

J.C.: Can you describe some of the details of your company’s Markforged X7 3D printing system?

Figure 6
The Markforged X7 3D printing system includes a sensor suite of that automatically calibrates the machine before each print—leveling the bed, calibrating the nozzles and more. That means there’s no need for a lot of the regular maintenance tasks required of typical 3D printers

CREASE: The Markforged X7 is the top-of-the-line model of our Industrial Series. Both the printer and the parts it delivers are reliable and robust (Figure 6). And the system itself is designed to be low-maintenance and easy to use. The X7 includes a sensor suite of that automatically calibrates the machine before each print—leveling the bed, calibrating the nozzles and more—meaning there’s no need for a lot of the regular maintenance tasks required of typical 3D printers. It prints in a broad range of high strength composite materials, including Kevlar, Fiberglass and Carbon Fiber. Customers can expect high-quality, metal strength parts produced on a low-maintenance workhorse.

 

 

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Simon Fried, President and Co-Founder, Nano Dimension
www.nano-di.com

JEFF CHILD: From your point of view, how do you see the state-of-the-technology when it comes 3D printed electronics?

Simon Fried

SIMON FRIED: The intersection of additive manufacturing and printed electronics offer several opportunities for new or improved ways of making things. The applications that lend themselves to this confluence of technologies cover a spectrum ranging from new ways of adding electronics to larger mechanical parts to—at the other end in terms of size—approaches to challenges confronting the component, semiconductor and electrical packaging industries. The larger scale applications include printing wiring and/or strain gauges into larger mechanical parts and so allow for the elimination of bulky wiring harnesses and connectors, as well enabling better preventative maintenance sensing.

Antennas can also be added to pre-existing parts to open the door to new ways of adding smarts to nose-cones in aircraft or missiles for example. At the other end of the scale spectrum are PCB, component or even wafer level applications. Additive manufacturing of multi-layer circuits or MIDs (molded interconnect devices) means these types of item can both be prototyped much more quickly, secretly and flexibly. They can also be designed differently given the novel non-planar geometries that an additive approach makes possible. At this higher resolution end of the additive electronics space, systems can also be found that can make the embedding of components within a 3D printed circuit an option.

J.C.: What do you see as some of the critical capabilities in 3D printing materials as they relate to electronic systems?

FRIED: Just as is the case in the traditional 3D printing space, it’s materials that set the boundaries of what can be made by way of additive manufacturing of electronics. The first key capability is the development of conductive materials that can be reliably deposited by means of extrusion, aerosol or jetting. Conductive polymers that may contain metals, graphene, carbon nano-tubes and other exotic materials offer lower levels of conductivity for FDM (fused deposition modeling) filaments. More conductive, often nanoparticle-based, inks can be deposited by aerosol or inkjet based additive systems. As these materials become easier to process, cheaper and more conductive, their application set continues to grow, including antennas for example.

For truly 100% additive printing of electronics, it is also necessary to deposit an insulating dielectric material. The traditional electronics industry has a dizzying array of such materials to choose from, each with specifications for a defined performance. While 3D printers don’t yet have materials matched to every need—whether mechanical, thermal or electrical— over the last few years more dielectric materials have become available. Specific inks for specific dielectric performances are now available, where before printers had to make do with whatever polymer was printable. As the set of materials expands so will the applications that an additive approach makes possible.

J.C.: What advances do you see with 3D printing in the next couple years? Is 3D printing as a mainstream, electronics manufacturing technology in sight?

FRIED: It is still early days in the evolution of this technology and as a result most of the work that we are aware of has been experimental and very much lab-based. Considering the amount of development in this space—being driven by the needs of industries as diverse as automotive, defense, medical, consumer electronics, contract manufacturing and many more—it’s highly likely that that such high definition functional 3D printing will start to deliver manufacturing solutions in addition to today’s prototyping and experimental work.

J.C.: Do you have an example of a Nano Dimension 3D printer product that illustrates the kinds of technology trends we’ve been discussing?

Figure 7 The DragonFly Pro can be used to print traditional planar circuits and antennas as well as to print non-planar designs.

FRIED: Nano Dimension’s focus is on delivering solutions to the challenges and opportunities of electrical and product designers. There are several benefits that additive manufacturing approaches can offer, including namely time compression, secrecy, customization and innovation acceleration in general. Our new DragonFly Pro 3D printer is a precision additive manufacturing tool that simultaneously deposits two very different materials, metal and polymer inks. The DragonFly Pro can be used to print traditional planar circuits and antennas as well as to print non-planar designs (Figure 7). It’s the beginning of an entirely new way of making things, as well as a route to making what is currently unmakeable by any other approach. …

See the article in the November 340 issue of Circuit Cellar

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November Circuit Cellar: Sneak Preview

The November issue of Circuit Cellar magazine is coming soon. Clear your decks for a new stack of in-depth embedded electronics articles prepared for you to enjoy.

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Here’s a sneak preview of November 2018 Circuit Cellar:

SOLUTIONS FOR SYSTEM DESIGNS

3D Printing for Embedded Systems
Although 3D printing for prototyping has existed for decades, it’s only in recent years that it’s become a mainstream tool for embedded systems development. Today the ease of use of these systems has reached new levels and the types of materials that can be used continues to expand. This article by Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child looks at the technology and products available today that enable 3D printing for embedded systems.

Add GPS to Your Embedded System
We certainly depend on GPS technology a lot these days, and technology advances have brought fairly powerful GPS functionally into our pockets. Today’s miniaturization of GPS receivers enables you to purchase an inexpensive but capable GPS module that you can add to your embedded system designs. In this article, Stuart Ball shows how to do this and take advantage of the GPS functionality.

FCL for Servo Drives
Servo drives are a key part of many factory automation systems. Improving their precision and speed requires attention to fast-current loops and related functions. In his article, Texas Instruments’ Ramesh Ramamoorthy gives an overview of the functional behavior of the servo loops using fast current loop algorithms in terms of bandwidth and phase margin.

FOCUS ON ANALOG AND POWER

Analog and Mixed-Signal ICs
Analog and mixed-signal ICs play important roles in a variety of applications. These applications depend heavily on all kinds of interfacing between real-world analog signals and the digital realm of processing and control. Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child, dives into the latest technology trends and product developments in analog and mixed-signal chips.

Sleeping Electronics
Many of today’s electronic devices are never truly “off.” Even when a device is in sleep mode, it draws some amount of power—and drains batteries. Could this power drain be reduced? In this project article, Jeff Bachiochi addresses this question by looking at more efficient ways to for a system to “play dead” and regulate power.

BUILDING CONNECTED SYSTEMS FOR THE IoT EDGE

Easing into the IoT Cloud (Part 1)
There’s a lot of advantages for the control/monitoring of devices to communicate indirectly with the user interface for those devices—using some form of “always-on” server. When this server is something beyond one in your home, it’s called the “cloud.” Today it’s not that difficult to use an external cloud service to act as the “middleman” in your system design. In this article, Brian Millier looks at the technologies and services available today enabling you to ease in to the IoT cloud.

Sensors at the Intelligent IoT Edge
A new breed of intelligent sensors has emerged aimed squarely at IoT edge subsystems. In this article, Mentor Graphics’ Greg Lebsack explores what defines a sensor as intelligent and steps through the unique design flow issues that surround these kinds of devices.

FUN AND INTERESTING PROJECT ARTICLES

MCU-Based Project Enhances Dance Game
Microcontrollers are perfect for systems that need to process analog signals such as audio and do real-time digital control in conjunction with those signals. Along just those lines, learn how two Cornell students Michael Solomentsev and Drew Dunne recreated the classic arcade game “Dance Dance Revolution” using a Microchip Technology PIC32 MCU. Their version performs wavelet transforms to detect beats from an audio signal to synthesize dance move instructions in real-time without preprocessing.

Building an Autopilot Robot (Part 2)
In part 1 of this two-part article series, Pedro Bertoleti laid the groundwork for his autopiloted four-wheeled robot project by exploring the concept of speed estimation and speed control. In part 2, he dives into the actual building of the robot. The project provides insight to the control and sensing functions of autonomous electrical vehicles.

… AND MORE FROM OUR EXPERT COLUMNISTS

Embedded System Security: Live from Las Vegas
This month Colin O’Flynn summarizes a few interesting presentations from the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas. He walks you through some attacks on bitcoin wallets, x86 backdoors and side channel analysis work—these and other interesting presentations from Black Hat.

Highly Accelerated Product Testing
It’s a fact of life that every electronic system eventually fails. Manufacturers use various methods to weed out most of the initial failures before shipping their product. In this article, George Novacek discusses engineering attempts to bring some predictability into the reliability and life expectancy of electronic systems. In particular, he focuses on Highly Accelerated Lifetime Testing (HALT) and Highly Accelerated Stress Screening (HASS).

Advances in 3-D Printing and Related Technologies – Nicolas Roux

Q&As with Industry Innovators – Circuit Cellar Issue #323, July 2017

Nicolas Roux
Founder/CEO | Zimple

C. J.: Tell us about your background and technical interests.

NICOLAS: I am an embedded system engineer, with a background in electronics and mechanics. I fell in love with 3-D printing four years ago, and then I started to make some personal projects (RC cars, lights, toys). My cofounder, Antoine, is a data scientist student passionate by the internet.

C. J.: How did you get started with 3-D printing? A school project? A personal project?

NICOLAS: I started to work with 3-D printers four years ago, with a Prusa i3. Since my childhood, I have always loved making things. I have tried all the construction games! After my preparatory class, which is a two-year intensive program preparing you to pass the competitive examination for engineering school, I bought my first 3-D printer in order to restart making things, with my own ideas and designs. Being able to design, print, and try something I’ve got in my mind is a huge pleasure for me. Since I’ve tried it four years ago, I never stopped to make things!

C. J.: Your company Zimple’s focus is “3-D printing without toxic emissions.” What led you to this mission?

NICOLAS: After using a lot of different 3-D printers, I found that all of them have some problems regarding their use. So with Zimple, we want to share the solutions I found to counter the problem I’ve been facing with my 3-D printers. The fumes released by 3-D printers was the biggest problem for me. It really smells bad and gives me headache. After looking into research on the subject, I realized that this issue was really important and theses fumes were very harmful. So, tired of keeping my window open with my printer nearby, I decided to develop a solution. I had the idea of this solution: “hoovering” the particles directly at the nozzle, because I found it more elegant, less expensive, and more scalable on my different printers than building an enclosure.

C. J.: It seems logical that the air around a working 3-D printer isn’t as clean as the air in an empty room. But is there hard data on the negative effects of exposure to printer-related toxins?

ZimpureDelta

NICOLAS: Many studies about the emissions when processing thermoplastic are available on the Internet. The results are unambiguous: they are very toxic and released in huge amounts. After talking with many people around the 3-D printing industry and the thermoplastic ecosystem, we realized that this problem is known by every professional. They are all aware of the fumes released by the fusion of thermoplastic, and so they use big and powerful exhausting systems when melting plastic. Desktop 3-D printing is a very new technology. It’s the first time that a real manufacturing machine can be placed in a living room, on a desktop near an engineer, or in a school room. And this is the problem: people tend to forget that 3-D printers are real manufacturing boxes and not computers. The technology will reach the point where everyone will be able to use it as we use photocopiers, but even photocopiers have a particle filter inside it. It’s just a question of time before all 3-D printers will have a built-in filter.

C. J.: Tell us how you came to develop Zimpure, which is a compact air filtering system. In terms of engineering, what were the biggest problems associated with designing the system?

NICOLAS: With Zimpure we wanted to develop an efficient and compact filtering system. The two main challenges in terms of engineering were: First, to find a way to exhaust all the gases and particles, without using a huge and loud exhausting fan. Then, to use the filter that will be able to filter all the nanoparticles and gases released. Testing these two points isn’t easy, because you can’t see the particles. Even if the ABS smell disappeared when we were turning on Zimpure, we wanted to know how efficient it was on both issues: nanoparticles and gases. To do so, we’ve collaborated with a laboratory (CEA) in the Laboratory of Climate and Environment Science department (LSCE). They kindly provide us the measuring instruments we need to conduct our tests. After testing our prototype, we improved it to reach our goal: a 99% particle filtration ratio and more than 90% for the gases. We are now proud of, and confident in, our product, and we rely on it every day in our office and home.

C. J.: Give us an overview of Zimpure. Tell us more about what it does and its benefits.

NICOLAS: So Zimpure is a very compact (160 × 120 × 124 mm) and silent (around 50 dB, a bit less than some printers). And it’s a really efficient exhausting and filtering system. (It filters 99% of the particles and more than 90% of the gases released while printing.) It is also a very affordable product. We sold it for $108 (€99) on Kickstarter. The final price is $162.80 (€149). The enclosure or cover we can buy costs between $273 and $327. That’s not possible for many of us. That’s why we choose to make Zimpure more affordable.

C. J.: Compatibility with the many 3-D printers on the market could be a problem. How are you dealing with compatibility?

NICOLAS: Our Zimpure is the same for all the 3-D printers. The only change concerns the suction head, because printers don’t have exactly the same extruders. That’s why the users will print themselves their suction head, depending on their printer. Being able to ask our customers to print a custom part gives our project an affordable cost. It also connects us to our community in a very pleasant way. We can talk about the emission issues and compatibility design. We love it! Community is the strength of 3-D printing. We are designing and testing suction heads for a lot of 3-D printers. The final user will be able to download his own suction head on our website. He will just have to print it and Zimpure will be ready to clean! Many 3-D printer users are designers or engineers, so we think they will probably adapt or even improve our suction heads for their specific needs. We will share some CAD files in order to make them easier to modify.

C. J.: You exceeded your Kickstarter goal in April 2017. What are your plans now?

NICOLAS: We are currently running our production—a batch of 500 Zimpures. When it is, done we will go in different fab labs and resellers to test new suction heads on other 3-D printers and to present our product. We will send all the Zimpure units before the end of June 2017 for sure. Some backers will even receive it by the end of May.

C. J.: Any new products in the pipeline?

NICOLAS: Zimpure is going to evolve this year, and two other products are coming.

C. J.: Where do you see the 3-D printing industry going in the next five to 10 years?

NICOLAS: 3-D printing is going to be more and more used by everyone in society. Personal 3-D printers will maybe take longer to come up, but we think everyone will be able to access them and more and more products using the technology will appear. 3-D printing is a disruptive technology that enables us to mass produce custom products. It will be used more and more for production purposes and not only prototyping.

www.zimple3d.com 

Workspace for Open-Source Engineering

Christopher Coballes is a Philippines-based freelance R&D engineer and Linux enthusiast with more than a decade of experience in an embedded hardware/software and a passion for an open source design.

The nearby photo shows his home workspace, which includes handy tools such as a spectrum analyzer, digital oscilloscope, and a PCB etcher.

Source: Christopher Coballes

Source: Christopher Coballes

Here are some links to Coballes’s interests and work:

  • Engineering blog
  • Hi-Techno Barrio: A group of Filipino electronics enthusiasts who “aim to uncover the complexity of a modern technology and in turn make it simple, beneficial ,low-cost and free-ware resources.”

View other electrical engineering workspaces.

The Future of 3-D Printed Electronics

Three-dimensional printing technology is one of our industry’s most exciting innovations. And the promising field of 3-D printed electronics is poised to revolutionize the way engineers design and manufacture electrical systems for years to come. In the following essay, Dr. Martin Hedges of Neotech AMT presents his thoughts on the future of 3-D printed electronics.

Three-dimensional (3-D) printing for prototyping has been around for nearly three decades since the introduction of the first SL systems. The last few years have seen this technology receiving considerable attention to the point of hype in the mainstream media. However, there is a new emerging 3-D printing market that is increasing in importance: 3-D printed electronics (3-D PE). Whilst traditional 3-D printing builds structural parts layer by layer, 3-D PE prints liquid inks that have electronic functionality on to existing 3-D components. 3-D PE is achieved by combining advanced printing technologies, such as Aerosol Jet, with specially designed five-axis systems and advanced software controls that allow complex print motion to be achieved. The integrated print systems allow the full range of electronic functionality to be applied: conductors, semiconductors, resistors, dielectrics, optical, and encapsulation materials.

These can be printed on to virtually any surface material of almost any shape. Once deposited the inks are post processed: sintered, dried, or cured to achieve their final properties. Multiple materials can be printed to build up functionality, or surface mount devices (SMD) can be added to make the final electro-mechanically integrated system (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: 3-D PE demonstrator—Tank-filling sensor produced in the FKIA project funded by the Bavarian Research Foundation (Courtesy of Neotech AMT GmbH)

Photo 1: 3-D PE demonstrator—Tank-filling sensor produced in the FKIA project funded by the Bavarian Research Foundation (Courtesy of Neotech AMT GmbH)

In this example, two capacitive sensor structures have been printed on the ends of an injection-molded PA6 tank. The sensors are connected by a printed circuit (conductive Ag) and SMD components are added to complete the device. When water is pumped into the tank, the sensors register the water level as it rises, lighting the LEDs to indicate the fill level. When the tank compartment is full, the circuit senses the water fill level and reverses the pump direction.

3-D PE has the potential to provide enormous technical and economic benefits in comparison to conventional electronics based on 2-D printed circuit boards. It allows the combination of electronic, optic, and mechanical functions on shaped circuit carriers. Therefore, it enables entirely new product functions and supports the miniaturization and weight-saving potential of electronic products. By eliminating mechanical components, process chains can be shortened and reliability is increased. As a digitally driven, additive manufacturing process materials are only applied where needed, improving the ecological balance of electronics production. With no fundamental limitation on substrate material, the user is able to select low-cost, easy-to-recycle and more environmentally friendly materials. The novel design and functional possibilities offered by 3-D PE and the potential for rationalization of production steps indicate a potential quantum leap in electronics production.

Advances in this field have been rapid since the first developments that focused on 3-D chip packaging. In this field, printing is conducted over small changes in z-height to connect SMDs. Photo 2 shows an example where wire bonds are replaced by printing interconnects, from the PCB, up the side of a chip, and over onto the top contact pads.

Photo 2: 3-D chip packaging (Courtesy of Fraunhofer IKTS)

Photo 2: 3-D chip packaging (Courtesy of Fraunhofer IKTS)

Such applications only require  relatively simple print motion. The current “state of the art” is to use five axes of coordinated  motion  to  print high complex shapes. This capability enables the production of truly 3-D PE systems, such as a 3-D antenna for mobile devices (see Photo 3).

Photo 3: 3-D printed antenna (Courtesy of Lite-On Mobile)

Photo 3: 3-D printed antenna (Courtesy of Lite-On Mobile)

This application is well advanced and moving towards high-volume mass production driven by the benefits of a flexible manufacturing, novel design capabilities, and cost reduction compared to the current methods based on wet chemical plating processes. 3-D PE is also being scaled to print on large components beyond the size range possible with current manufacturing methods. For example, in the automotive field, 3-D prints of heater patterns are being developed for molded PC windscreens of up to 2 m × 1 m in size.

Currently, 3-D PE applications are mainly limited to circuits, antennas, strain gauges, or sensors using conductive metal as the print media with additional electronic functionality being added as SMDs. However, the technology also has the potential to leverage new material and process developments from the printed and organic electronics world. In this field, many different material systems are currently being applied on planar surfaces to create multi-material and multi-layer devices. Functionality such as resistors, capacitors, sensors, and even transistors are being incorporated into fully printed 2-D electronic systems. As these print materials and processes mature, they can be adapted to 3-D applications. It is expected that the coming years will see a rapid increase in the range of fully printed 3-D electronic devices of novel functionality.

ABOUT THE AUTHORDr.Hedges

Dr. Martin Hedges (mhedges@neotech-amt.com) is the Managing Director of Neotech AMT GmbH based in Nuremberg, Germany. His research includes aspects of additive manufacturing, materials and processes. His company projects focus on the development of integrated manufacturing systems for 3-D printed electronics.

Circuit Cellar 290 (September 2014) is now available.

 

A Visit to the World Maker Faire in New York

If you missed the World Maker Faire in New York City, you can pick up Circuit Cellar’s February issue for highlights of the innovative projects and hackers represented there.Veteran electronics DIYer and magazine columnist Jeff Bachiochi is the perfect guide.

“The World Maker Faire is part science fair and part country fair,” Bachiochi says. “Makers are DIYers. The maker movement empowers everyone to build, repair, remake, hack, and adapt all things. The Maker Faire shares the experiences of makers who have been involved in this important process… Social media keeps us in constant contact and can educate, but it can’t replace the feeling you can get from hands-on live interaction with people and the things they have created.

Photo 1: This pole-climbing robot is easy to deploy at a moment’s notice. There is no need for a ladder to get emergency communication antennas up high where they can be most effective.

Photo 1: This pole-climbing robot is easy to deploy at a moment’s notice. There is no need for a ladder to get emergency communication antennas up high where they can be most effective.

“It should be noted that not all Maker Faire exhibitors are directly involved with technology. Some non-technological projects on display included the ‘Art Car’ from Pittsburgh, which is an annual revival of an old clunker turned into a drivable art show on wheels. There was also the life-size ‘Mouse Trap’ game, which was quite the contraption and just plain fun, especially if you grew up playing the original game.”

Bachiochi’s article introduces you to a wide variety of innovators, hackers, and hackerspaces.

“The 721st Mechanized Contest Battalion (MCB) is an amateur radio club from Warren County, NJ, that combines amateur (ham) radio with electronics, engineering, mechanics, building, and making,” Bachiochi says. “The club came to the Maker Faire to demonstrate its Emergency Antenna Platform System (E-APS) robot. The robot, which is designed for First Responder Organizations, will turn any parking lot lamppost into an instant antenna tower (see Photo 1).”

The keen and growing interest in 3-D printing as a design tool was evident at the Maker Faire.

“Working by day as an analog/mixed-signal IC design engineer for Cortina Systems in Canada, Andrew Plumb needed a distraction. In the evenings, Plumb uses a MakerBot 3-D printer to create 3-D designs of plastic, like thousands of others experimenting with 3-D printing,” Bachiochi says. “Plumb was not satisfied with simply printing plastic widgets. In fact, he showed me a few of his projects, which include printing plastic onto paper and cloth (see Photo 2).”

Photo 2: Andrew Plumb showed me some unique ideas he was experimenting with using one of his 3-D printers. By printing the structural frame directly on tissue paper, ultra-light parts are practically ready to fly.

Photo 2: Andrew Plumb showed me some unique ideas he was experimenting with using one of his 3-D printers. By printing the structural frame directly on tissue paper, ultra-light parts are practically ready to fly.

Also in the 3-D arena, Bachiochi encountered some innovative new products.

“It was just a matter of time until someone introduced a personal scanner to create digital files of 3-D objects. The MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D Scanner is the first I’ve seen (see Photo 3),” Bachiochi says. “It uses a laser, a turntable, and a CMOS camera to pick off 3-D points and output a STL file. The scanner will create a 3-D image from an object up to 8″ in height and width. There is no third axis scanning, so you must plan your model’s orientation to achieve the best results. Priced less than most 3-D printers, this will be a hot item for 3-D printing enthusiasts.”

Bachiochi’s article includes a lengthy section about “other interesting stuff” and people at the Maker Faire, including the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab), a community that uses inexpensive DIY techniques to investigate environmental concerns.

Photo 3: The MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D Scanner is the first production scanner I’ve seen that will directly provide files compatible with the 3-D printing process. This is a long-awaited addition to MakerBot’s line of 3-D printers. (Photo credit: Spencer Higgins)

Photo 3: The MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D Scanner is the first production scanner I’ve seen that will directly provide files compatible with the 3-D printing process.  (Photo credit: Spencer Higgins)

“For instance, the New York chapter featured two spectrometers, a you-fold-it cardboard version and a near-infrared USB camera-based kit,” Bachiochi says. “This community of educators, technologists, scientists, and community organizers believes they can promote action, intervention, and awareness through a participatory research model in which you can play a part.”

At this family-friendly event, Bachiochi met a family that “creates” together.

“Asheville, NC-based Beatty Robotics is not your average robotics company,” Bachiochi says. “The Beatty team is a family that likes to share fun robotic projects with friends, family, and other roboticists around the world. The team consists of Dad (Robert) and daughters Camille ‘Lunamoth’ and Genevieve ‘Julajay.’ The girls have been mentored in electronics, software programming, and workshop machining. They do some unbelievable work (see Photo 4). Everyone has a hand in designing, building, and programming their fleet of robots. The Hall of Science is home to one of their robots, the Mars Rover.”

There is much more in Bachiochi’s five-page look at the Maker Faire, including resources for finding and participating in a hackerspace community. The February issue including Bachiochi’s articles is available for membership download or single-issue purchase.

Photo 4: Beatty Robotics is a family of makers that produces some incredible models. Young Camille Beatty handles the soldering, but is also well-versed in machining and other areas of expertise.

Photo 4: Beatty Robotics is a family of makers that produces some incredible models. Young Camille Beatty handles the soldering, but is also well-versed in machining and other areas of expertise.

High-Tech Halloween

Still contemplating Halloween ideas? Do you have a costume yet? Is your house trick-or-treat ready? Perhaps some of these high-tech costumes and decorations will help get you in the spirit.

Recent Circuit Cellar interviewee Jeremy Blum designed a creative and high-tech costume that includes 12 individually addressable LEDs, an Adafruit microcontroller, and 3-D printing.

Skull_Side_Full_IMG_0067

Custom animatronic skull

RavenSide2Armature_IMG_0015

Animatronic talking raven

Looking for Halloween decoration inspiration? Peter Montgomery designed some programmable servo animation controllers built around a Freescale Semiconductor 68HC11 microcontroller and a Parallax SX28 configurable controller.

Peter’s Windows-based plastic skull is animated with RC servos controlled via a custom system. It moves at 24 or 30 frames per second over a custom RS-485 network.
This animatronic talking raven features a machined aluminum armature and moves via RC servos. The servos are controlled by a custom system using Windows and embedded controllers.

Peter’s Halloween projects were originally featured in “Servo Animation Controller” (Circuit Cellar 188, 2006). He displays the Halloween projects every year.

Feeling inspired? Share your tech-based Halloween projects with us.

3-D Printed Robotics Innovation: A Low-Cost Solution for Prosthetic Hands

Gibbardholding DextrusUK-based inventor and robotist Joel Gibbard used a 3-D printer to design and build a prosthetic robotic hand. He founded the Open Hand Project with the goal of making the prosthetic hands available for amputees.

 

 NAN: Give us some background. Where do you live? Where did you go to school? What did you study?

 JOEL: I was born in Bristol, UK, and grew up in that area. Bristol is a fantastic place for robotics in the UK, so I couldn’t have had a better place to start from. There’s a lot to engage children here, like the highly popular @Bristol science museum. I studied for a degree in Robotics at the University of Plymouth, which encourages a very practical approach to engineering. Right from the first year we were working with electronics, robotics, and writing code.

 NAN: When did you first start working with robotics?

 JOEL: The first robots I ever made were using the Lego MINDSTORMS NXT robotics kits. I was very lucky because these were just starting to come out when I was about 6 or 7 years old. I think from ages three to 15 every single birthday or Christmas present was a new Lego set. To this day, I still think Lego is the best tool for rapid prototyping in the early stages of an idea.

 NAN: Tell us about your first design/some of your early projects. Do you have any photos or diagrams?

 JOEL: The earliest project I remember working on with my father was a full-scale model of the space shuttle complete with robotic arm and fully motorized launch pad. When on the launch pad it was almost my height. I think my father took having kids as an opportunity to get back into making things. We also made a Saturn 5 rocket, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Concorde. One of my first robots was a Lego Technic creation. It had tracks, a double-barreled gun on one arm, a pincer on the other, and a submarine on the back, just in case. I think I was about eight years old when I made it.

 NAN: You originally developed the Dextrus robotic hand while you were at the University of Plymouth. Why did you design the system? How has its development progressed since the original concept?

Gibbarddesignprocess

Joel keeps an ongoing design sketchbook.

JOEL: I have a sketchbook of around 10 to 20 inventions that are options for the next thing I want to make. This grows faster than it shrinks. One day I was thinking about what to make next and the thought occurred to me that if I were to lose my hand, I wouldn’t be able to make anything. So it made the most sense to design a hand to have just in case. Once I have that, heaven forbid I need to; I could use it to then make a better hand, and so forth, until I have a robot hand that is as good as a human hand. It sounds ridiculous, but that was enough motivation for me to make the first one.

GibbardEarlyDextrus

This is an early version of the Dextrus hand.

After posting the project on YouTube, I received comments from people asking to have the designs to make their own, which wasn’t really possible, since it was such a one-off prototype. But I thought it was a good idea. Why not make an open-source hand? After that, I looked more into prostheses and discovered that this is really necessary and people want it.

 NAN: The Dextrus incorporates 3-D printed parts. How does the 3-D printing factor in your design? Does it make each hand customizable?

 JOEL: 3-D printing is essential to the design. Many of the parts have cavities inside them, which wouldn’t be possible to make using injection molding. One would have to make the parts in two halves then glue them together, which creates weak points. With 3-D printing, each part is one solid piece with cavities for the tendons to slide through.

Customization is a great area to explore in the future. It’s quite easy to modify things like the length and shape of the fingers while maintaining the functionality of the hand. In the not-too-distant future, I could envisage an amputee 3-D scanning their remaining hand and sending the scan to me. I could then reverse it and match their Dextrus hand (approximately) to the dimensions of their other hand.

Gibbard3DprintedDextrushand

The 3-D printed Dextrus hand.

 NAN: There are three types of Dextrus robotic hands: The Dextrus, the Dextrus EMG, and the Dextrus Research. Can you describe the differences?

 JOEL: They have the same basic design and components. The Dextrus and Dextrus EMG are exactly the same, but the EMG comes with all of the extras that enable someone to use it as a myoelectric prosthesis. The Dextrus Research has a number of differences that result in a more robust (but more expensive and heavier) hand. It has steel ball bearings instead of nylon bushes and is printed with denser plastic. It also comes with everything you need to use it straight out of the box (e.g., a power supply).

 NAN: You founded the Open Hand Project as a result of your work on the Dextrus robotic hand. Describe the project and its purpose.

 JOEL: The aim of the Open Hand Project is to make advanced prosthetic hands more accessible to amputees. It has the potential to revolutionize the prosthetics industry by trivializing the cost of prosthetics (to insurance companies). I also hope that it will help to advance prosthetic hands. If the hardware is much less expensive, we can start to focus on the human robot interface. At the moment, it uses electromyographical signals, which sound advanced but are actually 50-year-old technology and don’t give complex functionality like individual finger movement. If the hardware is inexpensive, then money can instead be spent on operations to tap into the nervous system and then the hand can literally be a direct replacement for the human hand. You’ll think about moving your hand and the robotic hand will do exactly what you’re thinking. If done correctly, you’ll also be able to feel with it. We’re talking Luke Skywalker Star Wars tech. It exists now, but is not yet fully tested and proven.

 NAN: Prior to venturing out on your own, you were an Applications Engineer at National Instruments (NI). Although you are no longer working for the company, it is backing the Open Hand Project by providing test and measurement equipment. How did NI become involved in the project?

 JOEL: National Instruments has been great since I’ve left the company. I explained what I wanted to do, and it was fully supportive. To get the equipment, all I had to do was ask! It really does live up to its reputation of being one of the best places to work. I hope that I’ll be able to repay them with business in the future. If I’m successful, then I’ll be able to buy equipment for future projects.

 NAN: Why did you decide to use crowdfunding for this project?

 JOEL: I wanted to keep everything open source for this project. Investors don’t want to fund an open-source project. You have no leverage to make money and your ideas will be taken and used by other people (which is encouraged). For this reason, only people who are genuinely interested in the vision of the project will want to invest, and that’s just not something that will make a company money. Crowdfunding is perfect, because people appreciate how this can help people and they’re willing to contribute to that.

I believe that everyone should have access to public health care and that your level of care should not be dependent on the size of your wallet. Making prosthetics open source will be a step in the right direction, but this model does not have to be limited to prosthetics. Take the drugs industry for example. Drugs companies work off patents, they have to patent their drugs in order to make back the millions of dollars they spend developing them and end up charging $1,000 for a pill that costs them $0.01 to make in order to cover all of their costs. If the research was publicly funded and open source, the innovations in this industry would be dramatically accelerated and once drugs were developed, they could be sold more cheaply, if sale of the drugs was government regulated, the price could be controlled and the money could go back into funding more developments.

 NAN: What’s next for the Dextrus?

 JOEL: There are a few directions I’d like this project to go in. First and foremost is the development of low-cost robotic prostheses for adults. After this, I’d like to look into partial amputations and finger prostheses. I’d also like to try and miniaturize the hand so that children can use it as well. Before any of this can happen I’ll need to reach my crowdfunding goal on indiegogo!

 

Video: 3-D Printing with Liquid Metals and Flexible Electronics

In the October issue of Circuit Cellar, Collin Ladd and Dr. Michael Dickey will be writing an essay about a North Carolina State University group’s fascinating research into 3-D printing with liquid metals.

“Most 3-D printers currently pattern plastics, but printing metal objects is of particular interest because of metal’s physical strength and electrical conductivity,”  Ladd and Dickey say in their essay.

The process involves a needle that dispenses an alloy of gallium and indium, which in turn enables the 3-D printing of metals at room temperature. These flexible, bendable  structures hold their shape and hold promise for uses including wires, antennas,  flexible displays, wearable sensors, and skin substitutes on prosthetics. They can even “heal” themselves, the researchers say.

“Using our approach, we can direct print freestanding wire bonds or circuit traces to directly connect components—without etching or solder—at room temperature. Encasing these structures in polymer enables these interconnects to be stretched tenfold without losing electrical conductivity. Liquid metal wires also have been shown to be self-healing, even after being completely severed. Our group has demonstrated several applications of the liquid metal in soft, stretchable components including deformable antennas, soft-memory devices, ultra-stretchable wires, and soft optical components,” according to the essay.

But like many advances in technology, there was a certain amount of simple good luck in the pace of their research. That luck involved the introduction of Dr. Dickey to undergraduate student Ladd, whom Dickey credits for playing a key role:

“Collin worked in my lab as an undergraduate for almost three years and recently graduated. During that time, he was an undergraduate with unusual talent. He built the 3-D printer in our lab from spare parts. He got the machine to work and did a lot of the measurements that led to the (published research) paper. He also created the incredible video that is posted on YouTube.

“I first met Collin when he was a student in my class. He was one of those rare students who was a genuinely curious learner, but with no real concerns about grades. I found that refreshing. He came to my office one day and I found out that he was doing experiments in his apartment!  I told him he should really be working in the lab, and the rest is history.”

So even though you won’t be seeing the research team’s full essay until Circuit Cellar‘s October issue is available online and in print, we thought we would share Ladd’s “incredible video” of the team’s work.

We’d also like to add that no insect was harmed in the making of this video (the bug receiving a pair of liquid metal antennae in the final footage had previously met its demise at the “hands” of a spider).