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

Dan Feinberg | 03-08-2018

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.

Feinberg: Exactly, and much easier to do than having to set up chemical tanks and etchers and you name it. The Dragonfly printer, of course, is fully designed for PC fab. I've seen many other 3D printing units—at CES there were several—printing toys and you name it. You are the only one that I'm aware of that I believe is totally, fully designed for circuit board fabrication. Do you think that's true?

Fried: I wake up every morning expecting to find out otherwise, but so far, I've not gotten wind of anything that is targeting what we're doing, and certainly no one doing what we're doing. It's sometimes suspicious in that you wonder why this is the case, but I think it's such a different angle. The folks involved in 3D printing are so imbued with the mechanical engineers' needs and the mechanical engineers' material sets that it seems people are waiting to see where our technology goes. They're letting us be the canary in the mine.

Feinberg: It could be. The ones I've seen that are also making circuit boards, they're really designed for other things too, but they're also showing that they can make a circuit board. I think they're looking for different areas of focus. Yours is the only one that I'm aware of that has got this level of attention.

Fried: I think you have several that use the XYZ motion of, say, a classic extrusion 3D printer to add copper milling capabilities, for example. You can certainly find some that would let you do etching, and there's the company, Voltara, up in Toronto, who are very much focused on circuit boards, but to date only really one layer and 8, 9, 10 mil traces. There is a company out in New York called BotFactory, who similarly have a focus on electronics. Their deposition technology and their materials are fantastic if you're a maker, but they do not yet seem to be focused on industrial applications.

Feinberg: Do you envision a time when most standard circuit board fab companies will also have a 3D printer?

Fried: I'd be surprised if it doesn't end up there eventually. Just take the slogans of companies like Flex, with their company slogan. They talk about going ‘from sketch to scale.’ The drive for such companies is how early can they get engagement with their customer? The earlier they get it, the more likely they are to be the person who ends up with the resulting larger volume contract. The closer an organization is to the needs of the market, the more information and insight you get into general trends.

Certainly, when I speak to the PCB companies, it is a conservative place. I fully expect the initial steps to be very much with that aerospace, defense, R&D group. They're more forward looking, perhaps, and less conservative. They have other factors to consider when adopting new technologies. That said, we do have some PCB industry companies as part of our beta program. The way we see them using the technology now is that they're saying, "There's so much noise at the prototyping end of work, and it interferes with all of our other processes."

It makes it very difficult for the larger players to be flexible and nimble enough to really have those interactions at that sketch phase of a product. Basically, the Dragonfly will absorb all the noise and allow them to engage earlier, and thereby perhaps even get involved at the design stage much more than they are currently, where they're typically getting things nearer to the production stage.

Feinberg: I think that will be a big aha! moment when you start to send out press releases saying this circuit board company and that circuit board company and so forth, have now bought Dragonfly units. I think it's coming. I really do.

Fried: Yeah, and they're using it also for things that we frankly didn't foresee. They're making test fixtures and jigs. You can essentially print the bed of nails. You print the invert board that you just printed, and you can create a relatively quick way of testing your board. You can print the stencil for the solder. In the end, as with anything, you give it to the customer, and then it certainly goes beyond the kind of things that we originally had in mind. That comes down to the fact that the printer right now with that 3D plug-in can turn out very high-resolution polymer parts with embedded circuitry. We can also look at creating parts that you can add sprung pins to as you would with test sockets, etc. There are applications that spring to mind, and oftentimes that mind isn't ours, but the customer's.

Feinberg: I think you and I first met a year and a half ago or so at CES. At that time, you were looking to get your first units in the field. Now we know you have units out there. How many units do you have in the field right now? Can you tell me?

Fried: There were 16 companies in the end who participated in the beta program. Some of those still have systems that they're using. They're slowly migrating from the beta units to the commercially released unit. Not all of them will because some of them were partners primarily to get their input and feedback. Those that we expected would go ahead and upgrade, to date seem to be proceeding as expected.

We’ve announced eight system orders since the launch of the system. The first announced customer for the system was Jabil, which is obviously a good vote of confidence as well as the esteemed Max Planck in Germany. The interest is quite global. That's in line with our expectations for what is a global industry. Certainly, the U.S. and Germany seem to be the places where we're getting initial traction and are also the most easily serviced markets for us. Korea, Taiwan and Japan are not far behind.

Feinberg: Yes, I would think so. Probably more so than China. Let me switch topics a little bit. What kind of advances are you seeing in the consumable that's used?

Fried: The status is that because we're currently very focused on the system launch; there's only so much an organization of our size can do, and we've still only commercialized those two inks, the silver ink and a liquid FR-4, you could call it. Those are the two materials that are out there, and those are the only ones we talk about as being relevant for availability in the near term.

We are doing a lot of research into ceramic or ceramic-like materials, and looking at materials that would add increased flexibility to allow for better flex parts. At the moment, we can print very thin parts, and they give a certain amount of bend, but they're certainly not flex. To offer fully flex or rigid-flex type parts, that kind of a flex addition is certainly on the roadmap. Those really are the two main areas beyond what's there. Ultimately, with the 3D capability, a support material, as you often have to have in 3D printing to print overhangs requires a sacrificial support ink as well, to allow you to achieve the full range of shapes. None of these are released yet, but watch out.

Feinberg: Lots of stuff coming. Let me switch gears again just a little bit. You were not at CES, and I don't know if you noted, but when I covered 3D printing at CES, I mentioned the fact that you guys were not there. I think you're the only time I've ever mentioned anybody who wasn't there rather than people who were. You had a very good answer for it, and I wanted to pass that on. You said the end consumer is not your market.

Fried: Firstly, thank you for the mention, because it did jump out at me as well—goodness, we were mentioned for being absent—which is usually a form of punishment, but in this case, it certainly wasn't. We did sneak some samples in because of our collaboration with Techniplas, which is technical plastics, a leading automotive supplier. We're now collaborating with them as part of their additive manufacturing effort. We did have some parts and information on display in their booth, but it wasn’t a full booth for us this year. We launched our new system at productronica in Munich.

Feinberg: I understand. Of course, I went to the Israeli pavilion, and I knew you weren't going to be there, but they had quite a nice pavilion this year. They made some changes to it and it was very interesting.

Fried: They are very generous in the support they offer. It's very professional and they really make a big effort.

Feinberg: Yeah, it was extremely busy there. Really packed. Are you going to be at IPC APEX EXPO this year?

Fried: Yes. I there's a panel session that I'll be participating in I'd say we're at a 50/50 as to whether we'll manage to get a booth and a printer together, just because we'll be at Solidworks World next week as well as at Embedded in Germany.

Feinberg:Now I’d like your opinion on a couple things regarding disruptive technologies. 3D printing is one of the most possibly disruptive technologies in circuit board manufacturing. What other disruptive technologies do you see just in technology overall?

Fried: You've got me at a really good time for vision statements because I was at a fantastic conference down in LA recently, A360, or Abundance 360, where we were showing the printer. The whole spirit of that conference is, what's changing? How quickly is it going to change? Why hasn't anybody got their head around quite how impactful all this is going to be in a much, much shorter time than is really possible to digest? I'll steal their top tips because I think they captured everything. The conference focuses on driving significant change for a better near future. Key topics covered AI and bunched in ubiquitous travel. Travel is rapidly becoming something where, if you own a car, and certainly if you own a gasoline car, possibly as soon as five to 10 years from now, it will not be far from owning a horse. It will be that big of a change. For example, anybody who has kids under 12, will those kids ever actually drive a car?

Feinberg: I totally agree. In fact, I've been writing an article on autonomous driving. I put a brief part in for CES, but I've been writing a much longer one and I include that. I would predict, particularly here in California, because this happens to be a state where they think they know how you should live better than you do, that it won't be that long before major freeways in California will not allow a human being-controlled vehicle.

Fried: Yeah, you'd just mess things up for everybody else.

Feinberg: That's right. The biggest thing that you can't predict, the biggest thing that the computers and the artificial intelligence of the automobile can't predict is what another human being is going to do.

Fried: Right. Using AI as an umbrella term; I think AI in a manufacturing and production context, and I think ultimately also in a product design context also, means that things will change. These far reaching have implications for not just what gets made, how it gets made but of course who makes it; do we or do we leave it to the machines to take care of everything, including us! If you're looking at 3D printing, one begins to see the arrival of machine learning and AI into how printers essentially learn their trade. They can give themselves an apprenticeship. Given the right algorithms and the right sensors, they can learn how to operate themselves—better than a human operator would, and achieve results that will go beyond what one would imagine possible.

Feinberg: In fact, I'm not one that has much of a chance to read for pleasure anymore. I just don't have the time, but I just read a novel that will really get your interest. The name of the novel is Origins.

Fried: I'll make a note.

Feinberg: You won't be able to put it down. When you get through with it, you'll say, "Oh my goodness. This is exactly what's going to happen." It’s really interesting.

Fried: This is what the A360 conference was like. They threw out as examples, travel, so it's autonomous cars, etc., the head of products for Uber, describing the vision/reality of Uber drones—Uber Elevate—and they are going to have them operational within about three or so years. Before you know it, that will be cheaper than driving as well.

Feinberg: Yeah. I mean, the stuff that Nvidia is doing is just absolutely amazing. I would consider them an absolute leader in this, particularly artificial intelligence for autonomous driving. Let me know when this event comes about next year. Good Lord willing, I'll meet you there, because I would like to see this. I'm fascinated by it.

Fried: It's a fantastic conference, and it’s limited it to a max number of people.

Getting back to manufacturing, it has to change, and it's not just industry 4.0. It's not just digitization of files and components and logistical chains, etc. It's getting the tool set to enable the new products or product solutions that current processes don't allow for.

Feinberg: Absolutely. Is there anything else you want to convey to our readers?

Fried:  There is one announcement in addition to the Solidworks plug-in. Most people, of course, won't own our DragonFly 2020 Pro printer. At least not yet!

So, we have launched a printing as a service offering. This means anyone with Solidworks can download our plug-in for free from our website to design truly 3D circuitry. Access to freeform electronics is something that takes some getting your head around as well because you have to unlearn so much before you can design for it. We are open to printing as a service for 3D. So, get ahold of our plug in, work in Solidworks, and the file will transfer very readily.

Feinberg: They could transfer it. Even if they don't have a printer, they would be able to transfer it to your printer.

Fried: Exactly. It's how 3D printing really got a turbo boost when it was introduced to the market back in '04 - ‘06, where you have to see things first. Also, not everybody is going to need to buy a printer, but they may very well want to design parts in 3D that they couldn't make any other way. The scale of this is something that will grow as more systems come online. The bottom line is: We're open!

Feinberg: I can see where other companies may do that and set up manufacturing hubs where people could log in and say, "Here, print."

Fried: For sure. I'd imagine down the road we'd be more than happy to see anybody who has a printer participate in that sort of production ecosystem.

Feinberg: Yeah, it could be a hub with printers all over the place, and it doesn't matter. Maybe it gets printed by artificial intelligence choosing the place that's closest to your location.

Fried: If we can throw in drone delivery, I think then we're done. But joking aside, the flexibility that 3D printing contributes is only enhanced by printing as a service. Today’s distributed prototyping is tomorrow’s distributed manufacturing.

Feinberg: There you go. It's amazing what's coming. One quick question, I know that you talked about a facility here in California. What are you going to be doing here? Anything you can discuss regarding that?

Fried: Yes, essentially, we'll be doing sales and service, but we'll also be offering print as well. That may take a bit more time to spin up because it's early days for the facility, but we'll also be printing. We'll certainly be engaging with the Silicon Valley community when it comes to specific applications, and then obviously a visitor center as well, to which I'll be sure to invite you once the paint has dried.

Feinberg: We'd very much like to cover your opening. Please, as you have been doing, keep me informed. Thank you so much for taking the time. I know you're busy, and we've got quite a bit of interesting information here.

Fried: Thank you, Dan.