This article reviews the applications of 3D printing, where conductive and non-conductive materials are joined, to build embedded routed systems.
3D printing has long been applied to the design of mechanical parts. However, modern 3D printers can include both conductive and non-conductive materials. Interestingly, the conductive materials don’t just include metals: new plastics have been developed that are conductive. This opens up a range of possibilities to apply 3D printing to the development of electrical systems and electronics. The application of 3D printing to electrical systems is in a research and development phase, including the following.
Printing Sensors into Mechanical Components
Smart, connected products include a range of sensors that allow the product to sense its environment. To date, such sensors are mounted on mechanical components and connected to processors with electrical systems.
With 3D printing, mechanical components can be printed around sensors, potentially providing a more structurally sound base for sensor mounting. In some research and development cases, a large number of sensors have been incorporated into mechanical components that measure stress and strain.
This application of 3D printing offers great promise for products where sensor placement is a challenge, due to space limitations or operating environment.
Printing Electrical Systems into Mechanical Components
Smart, connected products also have power and connectivity provided by routed systems composed of wires, cables, and harnesses. These systems connect disparate electronics, sensors, and antennas.
By printing conductive and non-conductive materials within mechanical components, such connectivity can be delivered without wires and harnesses.
This use of 3D printing carries the potential for great weight savings from electrical harness systems, which in recent years has grown dramatically.