With the recent Kickstarter campaign from Voltera for a desktop PCB printer, electronics product development just went up a gear.

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3D Printing technology has been embraced by a broad range of markets, from fashion and art to medicine and engineering, and in a very small number of years has become accessible to anyone with units available for just hundreds of pounds.

Of specific interest to Vicon is that 3D printing is now well established as a way of rapidly developing electronics enclosures for new products. Our in-house 3D printing capability has quickly become a central part of the design cycle of prototyping mechanical components.

In very recent times this process would have taken at best several days and cost hundreds if not thousands of pounds. The only options were to machine metal or use older additive manufacturing techniques, such as SLA or SLS. These are generally off-site processes requiring specialist sub-contractors.

Reductions to project time and cost are always important of course, but perhaps the greatest impact rapid prototyping has on a development team is the change in design philosophy it allows. Iterative development becomes standard practice and frees up the designer to play around with ideas without the fear of making mistakes. A designer is likely to be more conservative and risk averse if the cost/time penalty for mistakes is high.

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So that's all good news for product designers, however electronics engineers continue to have to work with manufacturing techniques that imply high cost and slow turnaround for all but the very simplest of designs. PCB manufacture and assembly is a complex process requiring very expensive machinery and skilled operators. For large designs, lead times of many weeks is common, which again leads to a very conservative design style and significant amounts of time required to review data prior to manufacture. Small mistakes are common and board revisions are an accepted part of the process, but given the time-scales involved few projects can allow for more than a few of these.

This is why news of technologies such as that in development by Voltera are very exciting and promise much for electronics design teams. The golden land of being able to run a design overnight and debug it the next day is still some way off, and as with any new technology there are many limitations to that being proposed, but it's a significant step in the right direction.