Electronic Prototyping with a 3D Printer

It would be nice if your 3D printer could spit out PC boards. There’s been lots of work done to make that happen, mostly centered on depositing conductive material, although we’ve been surprised no one has worked out how to just 3D print a plastic resist mask.

We recently found a GitHub group for [PCBPrints] which has small modules that would be useful in prototyping and breadboarding. They are really just carriers that create plug in modules for switches, LEDs, and the like. It looks like this is a aggregated list of other GitHub projects that realize these designs. The group is in Spanish, but Google Translate is your friend, as usual. You can see a video of one of the button modules in action, below.

There’s a generic prototype board calculator in the repository. Of course, you probably want to be careful soldering near the plastic, especially plastic with a lower melting point like PLA. Although the repositories call these PCBs, there’s no conductive part. They are really just packaging and a mechanical substrate. Still, they are pretty neat looking and we can imagine them being handy in a lot of quick projects.

Another way people are making PCBs with a 3D printer is to use them as plotters to draw resist on the board. Or you can go subtractive and take the resist away. We haven’t seen much in the way of using a printer to deposit resist, except using Ninjaflex.

29 thoughts on “Electronic Prototyping with a 3D Printer

  1. I reeeeeeealy want to get a 3D printer, but I fear it’ll just get in the way of all the other ‘projects’ I’m tinkering with, even though it could potentially enhance said projects.

    Basically I need some clones of me so I can branch out and explore lots more avenues of interest in the time I’ve got left on this forsaken planet :)

    1. Don’t do it! One of my clones took all the glory and credit and left the rest of us to fend for ourselves. It’s strange to hate someone doing what you would do but I still despise Elon anyway. ;)

      1. It’s either clones or parallel universe Haku’s, but these historical documents show that interacting with parallel universe versions could go oh so bad:

        Did I ever blog about the time I made a spaceship made from junk in my garage?

    2. I’ve got a pair of em and they are a great tool as long as you always keep in your mind: “Does it take longer to design something on the computer than it’d take to make it out of something else?” Sometimes JB Weld and tape does a good enough job rather than the hours spent finessing something to do a job in a CAD package.

      1. I had the same attitude. I don’t own a printer, but the more I learn about 3D printing, the more I am changing it.

        Not everyone is good at other fabrication methods, and a 3D printer beats quite a few other methods in terms of necessary space.

        One of the biggest advantage 3D printers have, I think, is the precision and reproducibility. If you are reasonably good at 3D modeling, it’s a lot easier to make sure the measurements and angles all come out the right way. For example there is a 3D printed yagi antenna. Of course you can make one without a printer, out of wood for example, but it will be a lot harder to get an antenna with the right distances, 90° angles and a perfectly fitting holder.

        I found countless uses for a 3D printer already, so when I will finally get one I expect it to be quite busy ;-)

        1. I wanted to put some generic F450 landing gear on my quadcopter, I could’ve cut some aluminium sheet to make some adaptors so the quad can take the legs but that would’ve been quite some hassle and might not have turned out very well, so I searched on ThingiVerse and found someone had already made a 3D model of the required adapters, then I found 3dhubs.com which put people who want things printed in touch with people who can.

          About £10 and 5 days later I had the adapters in my hands and fitted to my quad, printed and posted by someone ‘just down the road’ :)

          So for the 1-off prints I can get back in contact with that guy or find someone else on 3dhubs to do the printing, but if I ever find myself needing a lot more things printed I guess I’ll have to spend time researching 3D printers.

        1. I’m curious – couldn’t you have just printed the template on regular old paper taped to the plate, used a center-punch on the holes, removed template, and drilled away? Curious because I have a project with similar task coming up

      2. I just bit the bullet and bought my first 3d printer, but I fear it will sit in a corner while I am busy actually building my parts out of wood instead of designing them on the computer to be 3d printed. I’m pretty good at wood work and I can whip something up out of wood usually before I even get the CAD program loaded! But… at least I can say that have one! lol

  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8zkrFdetjk I use my 3D printer to make circuit boards, with some regularity. It’s not even particularly expensive. (My laser showcased in the video, obviously, but any 1W laser attachment will do).

    Here’s a fancier video from my reseller: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q39atHpMnfo

    I don’t want this to be a “buy my product” post, so instead, here’s a video of me building the laser from scratch. You will also find parts list there so you can roll your own easily. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uPJYEV4osU

  3. I was always wondering if using a resin printer (SLA, like the Form 2 or similar) and directly put your bare copper board as print surface would work to print highly detailed resist directly on a board. And how would these cured resins hold up to the etching acid?
    Printing Ninjaflex with FDM on a board to get resist, might work, but the quality (consistent extrusion, fine detail,…) just is not there yet. And to make some boards for large components i can solder with “fdm-resist-printed etch boards”, i might as well go back to wire wrap directly. By the time you have drawn your layout in a CAE tool and did all the data conversions and got your printer set up so it actually prints “in near perfection” to make a pcb-print possible, i can wire wrap more than one board easily, and it will do just fine as a prototype or proof of concept.

    1. The resin will sure survive the etching. You do not etch your boards with something that dissolves resins life the Epoxy in the FR4. But I wonder if you could just give the blank PCB a good black paint, selectively burn that away with the laser and etch. You would not need much power for this. Or you can still expose a photoresist with the laser of the printer.

  4. You always have to keep in mind what you are trying to achieve. Compared to breadboards, PCBs are more permanent, compared to breadboards and perfboards, PCBs are smaller (denser in terms of connections) and faster to assemble.

    The way I see 3D printers fitting in is either as a photo-resist mask, preferably with a clamping mechanism to hold the board, or even an etch-resistant mask. Most filaments don’t stick to the pcb well enough, so you’d need a very good clamp/pressing mechanism.

    A more crazy idea would be something like a microfluidic etcher. That would be similar to the etch-resistant mask, but like a box which contains the pcb on its bottom, and channels to lead the etchant to the right places. Not sure about the practical advantages, though. It would still need a tight fit between the plastic and the pcb.

    Another use would be to build not circuit boards, but rather circuit objects. They would have other shapes than a flat box, to achieve some sort of function or look. Components would be put into preformed holes, wires would be guided through channels and twisted/soldered junctions. These objects could contain breakout boards like for a breadboard, but be more permanent.

  5. | “…although we’ve been surprised no one has worked out how to just 3D print a plastic resist mask.”

    I’ve often wondered out loud whether you couldn’t just print the resist directly on to the copper clad and etch. Not sure if the plastic would stick to the board or if the etchant would attack the plastic or not… Any thoughts? My printer should be here after the Chinese New Year sometime next month so… that may be one of the first things I try.

    1. It is very hard (basically impossible) to get “ordinary filament” (PLA/ABS/PET/…) to stick on a bare copper board. Especially once the filament has been cooled back down to room temperature, it just pops off the copper. So far, the most successful trials were using flexible filaments (FilaFlex, NinjaFlex,..) because they seem to offer the best adhesion. You would need a printer that can handle these types of filament tho, not every extruder/hotend combination works with flex-filaments.
      The plastics seem to handle the acid pretty well, but i guess it depends on the exact formulation (additives) the manufacturer uses in his mixture. You could get some reaction/degradation of the plastic in some acids, but thats pretty easy to test by just dropping in some filament-samples in the acid bath an observe what happens.

      1. Oh, I didn’t think about the filament not sticking… I’m new to all of this. I’ll have to think about this. Surely that must some way to make the layer stick to the copper…

    2. There are 3D printer modifications which can hold a permanent marker. The problem of course is that you need to exchange the print head, configure the height etc.

      So I still believe there are good reasons to look for ways to make PCBs with an unmodified printer and with competitive hands-on effort.

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