Overcoming the Technical Challenges of 3D Printing Electronics

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We’ve received numerous questions lately on how the Electronic Alchemy eForge will work in reality. These questions are fair, as something like the eForge has not been created before. In this post, we’re going to address some of those questions, including what is needed to 3D print electronic components and just how the eForge will do that.

What do you need to 3D print electronics?

Any electronic device that we use today is a combination of different types of materials connected together in specific arrangements. At a minimum, at least six materials are required to create typical electronic devices and components. They are:

  • Insulating - such as plastics and wood
  • Conducting - such as metals
  • Resistors - in between insulating and conducting
  • Capacitive - store electronic charge
  • N-type semiconducting - conducting/resistive property changes according to voltage applied. Gives electrons.
  • P-type semiconducting - same as n-type but accepts electrons.

Traditionally, components made from these materials are manufactured individually and then combined by sophisticated processes in order to create functioning electronic devices. Everything from your cell phone to your smoke detector contain electronics created from these six components.

However, printing six very different materials at once, is a challenge.

The Challenge of 3D Printing Electronics

The complexity of electronic components presented a number of challenges we needed to overcome in order to develop the eForge and the filaments that it uses to 3D print electronics in a fused deposition modeling (FDM) manner.

Developing the Printer

Multi-material 3D printing has been a challenge for 3D printers since its inception. Even printing the same PLA in different colors is difficult for more than three nozzles. Even so, leveling, contamination, and oozing are headaches for the best printers. We sought to take this even further by not only printing from six or more independent nozzles, but also printing materials with different chemical and electrical properties.

Early sketches of the eForge design

In order to address this challenge, we developed the eForge to have eight independently controlled nozzles within the head and independent temperature controls as well. We are developing a proprietary retractable nozzle design that mitigates oozing, contamination, and structure interference.

The accuracy and resolution of the print is governed by the combinations of nozzle size, temperature, speed, and effective pressure. We have optimized this for each material. Our ongoing development will continue and our early customers will benefit from this work.

Developing the Filaments

An even greater challenge is the development of the material filaments or inks for each of the six components that make up electronics. We have conducted extensive research and development work in order to develop the filaments necessary to print electronics. We have developed a material mixture process that ensures consistent results across multiple samples.

Early material samples

Thousands of research hours went into the development of the six filaments necessary to 3D print electronics. Each filament presented different challenges in development.

Samples of early filaments ready for testing

The research and development for the creation of our proprietary filaments was done in conjunction with Alabama A&M University and was funded, in part, by NASA.

Launching the eForge

With all of the central technical challenges resolved, the work then shifted towards optimization and improvement of the system and the delivery. We recently launched and funded our Kickstarter campaign with delivery of the eForge expected to begin in August 2020.

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