3D printing for the rapid prototyping of structural electronics

Rodolfo Salas, University of Texas at El Paso


In business, the time required to shepherd a new product through the phases of concept, design, prototypes, through manufacture and finally making the product available for sale (together known as: Time to Market) is critical to the success and profitability of the next generation of products. The use of relatively new technologies, known as 3D Printing, which allow the fabrication of complex tridimensional shapes within hours of a completed CAD design without the need for tooling or molds, has significantly reduced the time required for a designer to physically hold a part designed only hours before and to perform form and fit checks. However, as the complexity of these products increases, with the inclusion of sophisticated electronics encased in 3D structures with complex geometries and intricate detail Time to Market is compromised, resulting in lost opportunity. The use of advanced 3D Printing technology enhanced with component placement capabilities and Direct Write micro-dispensing to achieve electrical interconnect deposition has recently been pursued as a means to provide prototypes for functional electronic devices in similar time frame as traditional 2D bread board prototypes; however these 3D prototypes include the advantage of being embedded in more appropriate shapes in order to accurately represent finished products earlier in the development cycle. The fabrication freedom offered by 3D Printing techniques such as Stereolithography (SL) and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) have recently been explored in the context of 3D electronics integration—referred to as Structural Electronics. Enhanced 3D Printing may eventually be used to produce end user parts, allowing for unit-level customization and local manufacturing; but until limitations on the types of materials that can be used and accuracies improved (an eventuality), these enhanced 3D printing technologies can be employed to reduce development times by providing advanced, geometrically accurate, functional structural electronic prototypes. This application was demonstrated at the W.M. Keck Center by utilizing this technology to hasten the development process used to design a novelty six side gaming die. The die includes a micro-controller and accelerometer, which together detect motion and upon resting, identify its orientation through gravity to illuminate LEDs in the top surface for a fanciful effect. By applying this enhanced 3D printing, the prototype stage was expedited. For comparison, the device was ultimately fabricated through the use of traditional manufacturing techniques, utilizing a flexible printed circuit board and a plastic injection molded case.

Subject Area

Electrical engineering

Recommended Citation

Salas, Rodolfo, "3D printing for the rapid prototyping of structural electronics" (2013). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI1539994.