The 3D Printing Electronics Conference: Interview with Dr. Jon Harrop

Lots of news emerged at the second 3D Printed Electronics conference, hosted in the High Tech Campus conference centre on January 20th 2015. We discussed the trends with three of the keynote speakers, gaining insights as to why this sector is growing so quickly. Today: Dr. Jon Harrop.

“This is definitely an area to watch. There are going to be several strategic breakthrough products announced in 2015” said Dr Jon Harrop. “I know because I have seen previews of what’s coming shortly – and it’s getting very exciting.“

Jon Harrop is Director of IDTechEx, a high-tech market research company based in Cambridge, UK. They identify the trends and major players in order to estimate the size and rate of growth of emerging markets.

“We have been studying 3D printed electronics for over a decade. It really contains two industries: the business of printed electronics and then the growing market for 3D printing. Printed electronics is a €8 billion dollar global business, which we expect to grow to €14.2 billion by 2025. 3D Printing, on the other hand, is currently worth about €2.2 billion globally. But we expect it to grow much faster, reaching a value of nearly €18 billion by 2025.”

What 3D printing can learn from printed electronics
“In printed electronics, the real money makers have been quite mundane – conductive ink “fingers” on solar cells used to be 75% of the global printed electronics market. Printed and flexible sensors are already a €5.6 billion business. The largest market is biosensors, used in disposable glucose test strips which help diabetics monitor their health.”

“We’ve also seen some niche markets do quite nicely. People have been printing the silver conductors on the sides of electronic touch screens for many years. It’s a purely additive process, because you don’t want any wastage, so printing turns out to be better than etching the bits you don’t need, as you might do with copper. So there are significant advantages of printing in that context.”

“But for the last 20 years, people have also tried to make complete printed displays. With the right ink, you can print a transistor, making them entirely out of plastics. But as yet, little has happened to commercialize the process. That’s because other competing manufacturing technologies have also been improving.”

“Printed 3D electronics is starting to offer features that are not yet seen elsewhere. For instance, you could print a completely flexible phone, so that if you dropped it, the phone wouldn’t break. But the reality is that despite talking with all the major mobile handset manufacturers they are not yet excited by the technology. They are playing a wait-and-see game.”

From Mechanics to Electronics
“We have also been following 3D printing. Up until now it has been entirely driven by mechanics. I hear questions like “Can you print a cog? Can you print something that twists and turns?”. But despite major advancements in the last couple of years, nobody has put conducting or insulating materials into the same object in three dimensions at a commercially interesting price. But once this most basic functionality is added, there is the potential for 3D printing to revolutionize the entire printed circuit board industry, which is getting on for a €90 billion industry.

Dr. Jon Harrop is currently publishing the findings of several in-depth studies. Here are some of the highlights explained at the conference.

“There is a rise in the maker movement of modular electronics. You can buy modules with various functionality and so many schools and hobbyists put them together to make prototypes all the time. It is like building something with Lego bricks. But it is very difficult to move from that level of electronics, lashing things together on a breadboard, to manufacturing a printed circuit board you can put into a product and sell. We think that the current situation is stifling innovation. But imagine if you could buy a desk-top printer which would manufacture the complete printed circuit board (or an empty board so you could put on your own components). If that printer can be brought down to cost less than €9000, this section of the market will boom.”

Jon doesn’t believe this will eat into the existing methods of high volume manufacture of printed circuit boards. It will simply add a lot of new entrants, who can now prototype on their desks and get to market much faster with a commercial product.

“The best example of this is to compare automotive with the aerospace industry. The car industry’s use of 3D printing technology is probably saturated at the moment, simply because their production lines have other ways of making cars in high volume. But in the case of the aerospace industry, all kinds of mission critical parts, like fuel nozzles inside modern aircraft, are now 3D printed.”

“In healthcare, manufacturers of MRI scanners, produce just hundreds of these incredibly complex machines a year. They are looking at the feasibility of printing housing with wires already hooked up inside. In some of the machines there can be anything up to a million wires, each of which is plugged in and then tested by hand. They often use special connectors which only fit in one way. But if the wires were printed in the right position inside the casing, the wiring part would be solved immediately.”

“We expect several printers to come onto the market in the course of this year. One, the Voxel8, was already on show at the Las Vegas International CES at the start of January. They were demonstrating how such a printer can be used to 3D printed antennas, electromagnetic coils, or stack ICs in ways that were previously impossible”, Jon Harrop explains.

Designers are no longer limited to flat printed circuit boards – now you can design the electronics to fit your part, rather than designing the part around the electronics. Mass-customisation is possible – you can print 50,000 items, each of which is slightly different. “We’re seeing that already in hearing aids, where the case of device is 3D printed to it exactly fits the ear of the user. The same is happening in dentistry, with printed teeth disrupting a very traditional profession.”

 “I think the successful printed electronics companies that are emerging are the ones that come up with very simple solutions to things. There is a tendency for some teams to explore what’s possible rather than what is commercially viable. For some applications, rather than printing the complete module including component transistors, resistors and capacitors, it may be more practical to print empty boards and then add the components in a conventional way.”

 “The final area where 3D printing technology comes into its own is in remote or hostile locations. It made a lot of sense to put a 3D printer on the International Space Station. If something needs  fixing, you print the tool to fix it now instead of waiting for a part to be sent up from Earth. The same technology is also used heavily in the oil and gas industry. A pig (Pipeline Intervention Gadget) is  a robot used to inspect and clean pipelines. Because the pipes tend to bend and stretch with use, the pig needs to be tweaked to exactly fit the pipe concerned. There is no standard size. So a  prototype is currently printed on site, tested in practice and then the operators know exactly what to order. The next step will be to print the pig in stainless steel, meaning you won’t have to wait for a  re-supply.”

Written by Jonathan Marks