At PCB West, Zuken shared a booth with Nano Dimension. Zuken has been working with Nano Dimension for some time, and adding support for 3D printing and nanotechnology to its design tool platforms. I sat down with Zuken’s Humair Mandavia and Nano Dimension’s Simon Fried to learn more about this alliance, and to find out more about this odd-looking box being demonstrated in Zuken’s booth.
Andy Shaughnessy: I'm here at PCB West with Humair Mandavia and Simon Fried. Humair, tell us a little bit about what you're doing with Nano Dimension.
Humair Mandavia: Thank you, Andy. We had Nano Dimension as a guest at our booth at PCB West this year to showcase our partnership and share with the market what we're doing. We’re enabling users to go from the system-level 3D environment, using any kind of technology, into the printing stage and we highlighted how we're going to ease that journey and process. That's really what we're here to share.
Shaughnessy: Simon, tell us a little bit about this thing you have at the booth. What does it do?
Simon Fried: The thing that we have in the booth, hulking around the front center stage, is our 3D printer for circuit boards. It's an additive approach to constructing multilayer circuitry that’s backwards-compatible with the kind of design files that you'll find in the industry, your Gerbers and your Excellons. So far, it's familiar territory.
What it is doing is it's working in a very different way, and it's using different materials and a fully additive process to create that circuit. So, there are some novelties and some differences to a traditional multi-layer circuit board. That being said, we've been very careful to make sure the materials are, from an electrical perspective, as similar performance-wise to industry standards as possible.
So that's how one tackles planar circuitry, and then there's obviously another opportunity, which is how to open up that potential Pandora's Box of non-planar circuitry. That's something that I think the industry has to look forward to exploring.
Shaughnessy: Is this printed electronics?
Fried: Yes. About a week ago, I was reading my kids a book about a duck that could eat holes. If there was a hole, the duck would eat it, eating up the problems leaving perfection behind. That's a little bit like the additive process. It’s a bit magical, adding whatever is missing, and essentially you're getting rid of your traditional manufacturing processes. You're not plating, you're not drilling, and you’re not pressing. You're depositing materials in a very precise manner to create things, but you can also print a hole, by printing around an empty XY coordinate.
Shaughnessy: We were talking earlier about some of the challenges, because we're used to dealing with copper, and here you've got conductive silver and some of the other things that might affect signal integrity. Can you talk about that?
Mandavia: I can explain that. For a little bit more background, Zuken got into the whole additive space several years back for inkjet printers. We learned that from the CAD side that there's nothing unique, but when you start going into an inkjet printer, for example, that process of optimizing for ink droplets is just unique to your traditional fabrication.
We have a DFM product that specializes in only optimizing the spaces for bitmap resolutions so that you get the best quality output using inkjet. When we started working with Nano Dimension, through mutual customers we identified three key components that we wanted to focus on. The first is the business aspect, which is just lead time. A lot of the companies that we work with already understand the ROI of additive manufacturing, and then you also compound that with what's happening in defense and aerospace with companies driving towards a new methodology with digital tapestry and digital twin. Now, when we go into these concepts, there's already a model in place to justify having that kind of option inside their production flow. That brings in the value proposition for 3D printing for electronics.
The second component is a journey in itself. You brought up problems, but when we start looking at our partnership we just looked at how we're solving some of those problems. So yeah, different materials, different conductive inks, but they’re not an issue. By working together and working with other industry partners, we're already looking at how we can provide the ability to have downloadable design rule kits if they want to use it in a Zuken design flow. If they're not using our flow, no big deal. You could bring the design into our setup that we're working on and then bring in design rule-checks to make sure that you’re at least adhering to those requirements that are specific to any of the materials that are used for additive manufacturing over 3D printing for PCBs.
And then also, we're working with other industry partners to go through and validate the designs electrically. So whatever we're preparing for the market, all the design rules and checks are qualified. We want to take the mystery out, and just making that path from designing to printing much easier.
The third component is the freedom to be able to implement any board technology. We released CR-8000, as I mentioned, a native system-level 3D environment; it will support traditional design and allows you to scale-up to multi-domain, concurrent design, and that includes chips, packages, boards, and mechanical. CR-8000 is where real engineering and design come together.
When we started looking at 3D printing, we also needed to consider non-planar objects, for example MIDs. Nano Dimension is displaying some examples in our booth of non-planar electronics that we're working on now that show how we can allow that seamless interaction to design and print actual 3D electronics, and also reduce the hand-off to mechanical. It's still a little bit of a mechanical challenge, that's how people are juxtaposing it and producing it, so we want to make that experience better. So we're working on that, but then there are also the data models. We're working with IPC and IEC in Asia to define industry standards to help simplify that data transfer. We want to take advantage of our unique technology to make a better experience for the user, and we plan to work with Nano Dimension and our industry partners to advocate this technology to the market. There are many new applications ready to take advantage of this.
Shaughnessy: Then eventually you could have Zuken tools that are made specifically for printed electronics.
Mandavia: Printed electronics will be one of many technologies CR-8000 supports, and our goal is to allow engineers to freely design what they want, without the hassle of figuring out what tool can achieve a particular board technology they want to realize. So the types of opportunities we want to present to the market is that if you go with CR-8000 for your full flow, whether it's for production design or for prototyping, you will have one integrated system-level platform, and engineers across disciplines can work and collaborate together. However, we also want to make it non-disruptive to existing design environments, so if you want to augment your current flow with our products to support 3D printing, system co-design, or take advantage of any other unique areas of CR-8000, then you'll have the freedom to do that as well. Our intention is to pursue true enablement for the market.
Shaughnessy: Simon, from your side, this must help you get in more at the design level with the front-end guys.
Fried: Yes, and for us, it's a tremendous opportunity, mainly because it really helps the design community to make that transition, to be able to fully use the technology, which I think otherwise could otherwise have a steeper learning curve. It helps with that education of people to say, "Yes, this is okay, you can do it. You can still be in control. You'll know the boundaries within which you're working."
We're great at printers and materials, and there's a very big community around design and the design software, which is not our focus and collaboration on how best to serve this community is much appreciated.
Mandavia: Again, what made this partnership happen and why this was a great fit for us is not only because we're both developing new technologies for the market space to solve today and tomorrow's problems, but also the way the concepts and the disciplines fit together. For example, you brought up silver versus copper. Well, let's talk about silver and copper on a design. What about silver, copper, and gold?
Not only do you want to prototype it, but down the road you may want to do that for production for various reasons. You want to have the technology and solutions to be able to easily design for multi-material, rules by materials we call it, but also then print it very easily.
Shaughnessy: And you avoid a lot of it by not having to go through the typical assembly profiles and all this heat and everything.
Mandavia: That's exactly it.
Fried: There may be scenarios where there are interim steps where you'll find that manufacturing is perhaps hybrid. You know, you might do a bit of additive and a bit of the subtractive manufacturing. We'll need to have these approaches evaluated, worked through, have the materials be known and their properties known, and under the boundary conditions that you print them in. Traditional copper would continue to play aa key role.
It's one of these areas where it could go in so many directions. It can be a hybrid, it can be a purely additive. At the moment, it's very much a prototyping tool.
Shaughnessy: It seems like it gives you a lot more freedom because you're not having to do all the nastier stuff. They say with printed electronics one-tenth of the machines in a board shop could be used.
Fried: Certainly, you can save a lot of space. We had one site that said exactly that. "Look, we rank a printer like this as equivalent to about 2,000 square feet of space for our internal board prototyping.” So if you're running out of space, it's one option. But I think it's more about if you're running out of time, or if you have more ideas than you have the time to try, and you're missing out on developing stuff you should've explored.
Shaughnessy: And trying isn't as expensive this way, so if you make a mistake…
Fried: Yes, trying is cheaper, and nobody else ever knows about it. Failing fast and saving cheap, and also failing in private. This all encourages innovation.
Shaughnessy: It sounds like this partnership opens up a lot of opportunities.
Mandavia: That's really what we're aiming towards. There are some aspects of what we are aiming for that can be done today, and companies are taking advantage of additive manufacturing now. But I think with what Nano Dimension is offering, along with our partnership, will really open the door to endless possibilities so companies can focus on their innovation.
Also, talking about other advantages of 3D printing, we do not have to deal with hazardous materials as one example. There are many other benefits to this, and that's why we want to advocate this within the industry and drive adoption. If you think about our industry, we don't see too many compelling events, too many big shake ups, especially in printed circuit boards. This is the time that we start thinking about how to aggressively grow our market again, spur new opportunities, and 3D printing is one of those new ideas to support this.
Shaughnessy: You guys are kind of unique in that, because most of the big innovations in printed electronics have been from OEMs themselves. Because they couldn't find anybody to work with and they said, “We'll figure this out. We'll get cardboard and put traces on it or whatever.”
Mandavia: And paper dolls. People are doing all sorts of fun stuff to figure out their problems, but hopefully we can help go through this great new journey for them.
Fried: Doing that to one layer is relatively accessible and easy, and as the layers build up, you need different tools and hardware and software.
Shaughnessy: Well, thanks for speaking with me today.
Mandavia: Good seeing you again, Andy.
Fried: Thank you.