World of instant electronic everything begins: Circuits can now be 3D-printed directly into electronic devices

FOR the past few months, a factory in China has been spitting out a new kind of smartphone. Inside each is an antenna that was 3D-printed directly onto the plastic housing.

It doesn’t sound like much, but this ability to print electronic components at the scale and speed required by the smartphone industry is new. It has the potential to usher in a world where sensors and electronics are embedded in everything around us.

The technique was developed by a company called Optomec in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is working with Lite-On in Guangzhou, China, which makes phone components for companies like Huawei, HTC and Sony.

Normally, a phone’s functional parts, such as the antenna, are etched into the housing by scraping away material until the desired shape is achieved. Etching uses solvents that can be harmful to the environment, which 3D printing avoids. The key advantage of 3D printing, however, lies in its flexibility. It lets factories reconfigure the whole production line – to produce a new antenna design, say – just by rewriting the code that controls the printing system. Read more