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Solid Freeform Fabrication and the Future of PCB Design

 Key Takeaways

  • Solid freeform fabrication answers emerging demands for PCB form factors.

  • Design teams can use solid freeform fabrication to match unique consumer and industrial needs.

  • Aligning solid freeform fabrication with different design factors may revolutionize PCB design.

PCB design team

During the early 1940s, scientists predicted that cars produced in the year 2000 would feature body parts made from synthetic materials. They assumed windshields, windows, fenders, bumpers, and other assemblies would consist of some type of molded plastic. They imagined integral designs would give drivers and passengers comfort beyond what consumers could picture at the time. These scientists predicted that the new designs would protect anyone riding in the car against the “shattering force of collisions.”

Automotive engineer

We might be a fair distance away from holographic car displays, but you can still do your part.

When we consider automobile manufacturing today, many of these early predictions have come true. Today, a new set of predictions describe how additive manufacturing will revolutionize automobile design. While designs may feature greater complexity and uniqueness, additive manufacturing will keep costs reasonable.

Advantages of Solid Freeform Fabrication

Just as additive manufacturing (AM) promises to change automotive design, it may also introduce radical change within the design of electronic products. Different types of AM have already altered product design through the ability to shape plastics, resins, metals, ceramic powders, polymers, plastic, and thermoplastics. Processes such as Vat photopolymerization, Powder Bed Fusion, Jetting, and Directed Energy Deposition are just a few of the technologies allowing designers to rapidly create prototypes and implement small production runs.

Another AM process called solid freeform fabrication may offer even more opportunities to PCB design teams. For openers, solid freeform fabrication softens the differences between electronic and mechanical design. Since modern EDA applications are able to output files in 3-D, design teams can accurately match the dimensions and form factor of a circuit board with an enclosure, and recognize design constraints before moving to production. Design teams can also use the EDA software to select the layout and components that fit within the physical dimensions of the board and enclosure. As a result, teams identify factors relevant to an analysis, create models, identify possible problem areas, and establish metrics as they address thermal issues or electromagnetic interference before the product leaves the design phase.

Each of these tools enhances the ability of separate teams to communicate. Solid freeform fabrication also facilitates communication by moving the proposed product from the software dimension to the physical dimension. With this, the ability to rapidly prototype a physical model of the PCB—as well as the housing—assists communication between teams. Solid freeform fabrication assists in the modeling of a product by providing the capability to show the circuit board, the enclosure, any cables, wire assemblies, and functional parts. Because of this advantage, design teams can see if subtle issues that involve mechanical fit or the placement of small assemblies can impact performance.

The advantages of solid freeform fabrication become especially apparent when working with lightweight, thin, high-density interconnect PCB designs. Rather than utilizing conventional rigid PCBs, flex PCBs, or rigid-flex PCBs, solid freeform fabrication can embed prefabricated components, actuators, sensors, or assemblies into a shape that wraps around the contours of a product. As a result, design teams can closely align electronic-mechanical aspects of a product with the consumer or industrial vision for the shape or style of the product.

Solid Freeform Fabrication might revolutionize the design of PCBs, like the one shown above

Holding your completed circuit board might not come easily, but hopefully you can make it easier.

The ability to fabricate complex shapes can also address the need for creating lighter products that require less power. Design teams can build intricate product designs with intakes and exhausts that allow the recirculation of heat. Because solid freeform fabrication accommodates different types of polymers, plastics, ceramics, and metals, design teams can rapidly prototype devices that include materials that conduct electricity, efficiently dissipate heat, operate at constant high temperatures, or protect against interference. Additionally, design teams can use those processes to match electrical, shape, and size requirements with strength and weight requirements—all while meeting rigorous quality standards.

Aligning Solid Freeform Fabrication with Design Frameworks

The concepts and standards associated with Design for Manufacturability, Design for Sustainability, Design for Reliability, Design for the Environment and other design frameworks may generate additional enhancements when intersecting with Design for Additive Manufacturing capabilities. Along with adhering to standards for assembly and production, products may also align with new possibilities for geometries, shapes, sizes, and materials. Emphasizing this mix of manufacturing standards and manufacturing vision can allow products to meet new life cycle benchmarks while using components, board materials, and enclosure materials that upgrade and recycle easily.

The alignment between Design for Additive Manufacturing and other design frameworks becomes even more beneficial when considering customer expectations. Design teams can use solid freeform fabrication to ensure that they have the tools needed to support product design through the entire development cycle. As a result, designers can incorporate reliability, sustainability, and recyclability into a product’s design with an eye on the full life-cycle of the product.

Because solid freeform fabrication goes beyond plastics, ceramics, polymers, and metals, it offers unique possibilities for the future of PCB design. The ability to produce electrically efficient and effective devices from bioplastics and e-biologics may revolutionize PCB design. 

To learn more about solid freeform fabrication, or to search for a component for your latest project, visit the Cadence PCB Design and Analysis overview page. The cutting edge PCB design solutions from Cadence will make any electronics project easy. 

If you’re looking to learn more about how Cadence has the solution for you, talk to us and our team of experts.