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“Alexa, dim the dining room lights.”

Five years ago, that would have been a command to a human. Today, Alexa is but one virtual personal assistant among vast networks of interconnected “smart” devices totaling 8.4 billion unitsthat is taking the world by storm.

The concepts behind this “Internet of Things” or IoT is simple: Connect devices to each other and the Internet by building sensors and transmitters into them, so they can “communicate” and collectively serve a function better than if each were operating individually. The IoT concept stretches back to the 1980s, but the enabling technologies -- RFIDs, reliable sensor networksand an updated internet protocol (IPv6)-- that can accommodate billions of connected devices wasn’t ready till the 21stcentury.

The ingredients for functional IoT systems have been in place for years, but thanks to high R&D costs, time, and risk, there are no perfect IoT solutions today. There is, however, reason for optimism.

The recent advent of additive manufacturing for printed electronics, for example, has made engineering and design labs game-changing R&D enablers. Engineers will soon find themselves able to quickly, accurately and cost-effectively design and build functional electronics in new shapes with added functionality without having to wait weeks or months to understand whether their smart device works or not. The greater design freedom, compressed project timelines and fully in-house workflows afforded by 3D printing are setting the stage for the long-awaited IoT revolution. These advantages ultimately increase product and cost efficiencies and reduce time to market, meaning consumer can enjoy the benefits of these products faster than ever before.

Strength in Numbers and Networks

One of the IoT’s greatest promises lies beyond the reliable logic structure it offers. In bringing many autonomous systems together, IoT systems can communicate and interpret data at a level unfathomable by human intelligence. Insights gained from a larger ‘big data’ pool make possible any number of new possibilities in efficiency, scale and performance. With the ability to automate all the processes above, IoT systems are heralding a major shake-up in how we use and benefit from technology in real-time. 

Accelerating IoT Prototyping

Every IoT system has at least two key components: sensors and connectivity devices like radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and antennas. These electronic components all typically feature complex, multi-layered circuitry. Manufacturing these printed circuit board (PCB) components layer-by-layer using traditional subtractive manufacturing methods such as copper etching, followed by post-processing steps to combine them into one unit, usually takes days or even weeks.

Phytec's PCB sensor for ambient temperature and relative humidity printed on Nano Dimension’s DragonFly Pro System.

Research labs typically do not have bulky PCB manufacturing equipment in-house, so designs must be outsourced or offshored for manufacturing and testing sample products, adding extra time, cost and increasing the risk of intellectual property (IP) theft.

That’s where additive manufacturing for advanced electronics can help. This advanced branch of 3D printing offers the ability to create objects through material deposition (instead of subtraction) in very thin layers to build PCBs, molded interconnect devices (MIDs) and other components.

A key advantage to 3D printed electronics is lower material costs and lower waste because exact amounts of ink are deposited to 3D print each component. In contrast, traditional manufacturing methods such as copper etching waste 50 percent to 70 percent of the original amount of copper used.

Nano Dimension’s DragonFly Pro System building up PCB layers through additive manufacturing in an in-house process that saves both time and cost.

Beyond material costs, modern additive manufacturing systems for electronics offer other advantages for IoT system designers and engineers. Nano Dimension’s DragonFly Pro system,for example, enables design freedom, agile workflows and production speed, due to its simultaneous deposition of both dielectric polymer and conductive metal to produce functional circuit prototypes. As a compact factory-in-a-box, the DragonFly Pro system brings prototyping and IoT component manufacturing from large wet-process factories to small labs and office spaces. This enables true in-house development, free of IP risks and transport costs associated with third-party sub-contractors.

Nano Dimension’s precision 3D printed 5G antenna.

New IoT Designs Possible with Additive Manufacturing

3D printed electronics improve upon current manufacturing methods in terms of time, cost and risk, and the additive process also allows for new component designs that are currently difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with subtractive methods.

For sensor design, additive manufacturing eliminates many traditional limitations, especially those related to planar electrical designs. The result is highly customized surface topographies can be created to facilitate angled placement of sensor components and incorporate multiple functions in a single device. In antenna and RFID tag production, the ability to create miniaturized electronic structures means that they can be placed on more products and locations.

Today’s additive manufacturing technology from companies like Nano Dimension eliminates the limits and machine constraints of traditional electronics development. With in-house additive manufacturing of electronic circuits, designers can go through multiple design iterations and easily optimize the shape or functionality of their PCB for the end product, eliminating the need for expensive routing or laser cutting. Moreover, additive manufacturing of printed electronics enables companies to design limitless complex geometries.The only limits now are human creativity.

The important question then becomes: How will you envision the future of additive manufacturing and IoT?

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A co-founder of Nano Dimension, Simon leads Nano Dimension’s USA activities overseeing business development, marketing, sales and product management for this revolutionary additive technology. With experience working in the US, Israel and throughout Europe, he has held senior and advisory roles in start-ups in the solar power, medical device and marketing sectors. Previously, he worked as consultant on projects covering sales, marketing and strategy across the automotive, financial, retail, FMCG, pharmaceutical and telecom industries. He also worked at Oxford University researching investor and consumer risk and decision making.

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