How To Create a 3D Printed PCB Prototype

Kristen Horstman (BF)

3D printing has revolutionized the way we create physical objects. One of the latest applications of 3D printing is in the fabrication of PCBs. This approach allows you to design and prototype the PCBs that go into your electronics before scaling manufacturing.

3D printing offers a faster, simpler, and more affordable alternative to traditional PCB fabrication methods. With a 3D printer, you can create a PCB by printing its electronic circuitry onto a substrate from a desktop device in your lab.  

Key Advantages

3D printed circuit boards are a new technology quickly gaining popularity in the electronics engineering community for prototyping electronic designs. There are many advantages to using 3D printed circuit boards over traditional outsourced vendors.

Faster and less expensive than traditional PCBs

3D PCBs are faster and less expensive to produce than conventional PCBs because they do not require etching or lithography processes. 3D PCBs can create intricate designs that would be difficult or impossible to create with traditional methods. In addition, 3D PCBs can be made with various materials, including conductive ink and plastic.  You can produce circuit boards with very tight tolerances, reducing problems with short circuits and other electrical issues. 3D printed circuit boards also allow for a greater degree of customization, which can lead to shorter production times. 

More flexible and creative designs

Unlike traditional manufactured PCBs, which are limited by their shape and size, 3D printed prototypes can be made in any shape or size. This makes them ideal for use in 3D electronic devices where space is limited. In addition, this allows designers to tailor the board to the application's specific needs. 

No back and forth shipping

They don't require shipping from an outsourced vendor. 3D printed circuit boards can be produced on-demand, meaning you don't have to wait for your order to arrive from an overseas vendor. This saves time and money and is much more convenient for engineers who need to prototype new designs quickly and test variations.

Keeps your IP within your lab 

When engineers create prototypes on-site using a 3D printer designed for circuit boards, that IP stays in your lab. You can be sure that your ideas will not be stolen or copied by competitors or other opportunistic actors outside your lab.

Unlimited testing

3D-printed circuit boards offer an incredible level of flexibility when it comes to prototype design. With traditional methods, you are limited to the number of physical PCBs you can order and assemble. This quickly becomes expensive and time-consuming. 3D printing removes these constraints, allowing you to rapidly iterate on your design without additional cost. In addition, 3D-printed circuit boards will enable you to test unlimited configurations and designs before settling on a final product. This flexibility is essential for engineering success. Whether working on the latest consumer electronics or developing a new medical device, 3D-printed circuit boards will help you bring your vision to life.

This can help you avoid costly mistakes down the road.

PCB fabrication using 3D printers is still in its early stages, but it holds great potential for the future. 

How To Create Your Prototype

So once you've designed the perfect circuit board for your latest electronics project, but before you send it off to be manufactured, you need to test it out to make sure it works the way you want it to. The best way to do that is to create a prototype of your design using a 3D printer. 

1. Choose the Right 3D Printer

Not all 3D printers are created equal. When looking for a 3D printer to create your PCB prototype, you must choose one capable of printing at high resolution. That's important because even the slightest mistake in your design can cause big problems. Most 3D printers based on filament (FDM) would not provide the right resolution to print a PCB.

2. Convert Your Design File Into a GERBER File

Most PCB design software will allow you to export your design as GERBER files, which is the standard file format for PCB manufacturing. However, many online converters can do it for you if your software doesn't have this option. Just be sure to choose one that supports high-resolution GERBER files. 

3. Print Your Prototype Board 

Once you have your GERBER file, it's time to print your prototype board. If everything goes well, you should now have a working prototype of your PCB design that you can use for testing purposes. Upload the file into the printer, and follow the instructions.

4. Troubleshoot Any Problems 

Even if everything goes according to plan, there's always a chance that something could go wrong with your prototype board. That's why it's important to have a plan for troubleshooting problems. The first thing you should do is check the settings in your PCB design software and make sure they're correct. If everything looks good, then the problem is likely with your 3D printer.

5. Ask For Help if Necessary 

If you can't figure out what's wrong with your prototype board on your own, don't hesitate to seek professional help from someone who specializes in the 3D printing of PCBs. They'll be able to quickly identify the problem and get your prototype up and running in no time. 

Conclusion

Creating a PCB prototype using a 3D printer is a great way to test out your designs before sending them off to be manufactured. Just be sure to choose the right printer and converter, and troubleshoot any problems that might arise along the way. Then, with a little effort, you'll be able to create a working prototype of your PCB design in no time flat!