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3D printing refers to the physical construction of an object from a digital description through the selective deposition of material. Today’s 3D printers have many limitations, but the boundaries are being pushed and exciting developments are continuously being made. One of the most promising recent developments in the world of 3D printing is multimaterial printing, not least because it is the key to the emergence of 3D printed electronics. Today’s commercially available multimaterial 3D printers are limited to providing a variety of mechanical characteristics such as rigidity as well as color and transparency, but the seemingly simple inclusion of UV curable conductive inks could make these machines capable of manufacturing objects that contain conductive traces.
This is naturally regarded by many as a direct alternative to traditional PCB manufacture and, in many respects, not a very good one. The logical application for 3D PCBs plays to the traditional strengths of 3D printing: rapid prototyping. However, the ability to lay down conductive traces inside a 3D object has far more potential. There is no longer any requirement to use flat designs. The added design freedom has the potential to greatly simplify circuit layout but will require a new generation of software tools. Furthermore, the natural evolution of this design freedom is the ability to embed electronics in the structure of anything. This is known as structural electronics.
Structural electronics is one of the most important technological developments of this century. It forms a key part of the dream, first formulated 30 years ago, of computing disappearing into the fabric of society. It also addresses, in a particularly elegant manner, the dream of Edison in 1880 that electricity should be made where it is needed. Structural electronics is often biomimetic—it usefully imitates nature in ways not previously feasible.