3D Printing: 3D Print A Solderless Circuit Board

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Picture of 3D Printing: 3D Print A Solderless Circuit Board
Experimental circuit boards can be easily made with a 3D printer. They can be made at the same size and thickness as a standard 1/16" thick, through-hole soldered, perfboard.

The components can be fairly easily connected together without using solder.

This technique is somewhat faster than standard etched and soldered circuit boards. But it does require some skill and attention to detail to create a reliable circuit.

This example circuit board is a simple micro controller circuit that flashes three LED's in sequence.
It is intended to be a minimal illustration of what is possible.

The short video below shows the circuit working.
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Step 1: How It Works

Picture of How It Works
1- A circuit board is designed and printed on a PLA filament printer, in this case it was a MakerBot Replicator 2.  The board consists of trace channels with standard .1" spacing and holes for the components.

2- Components are inserted in the board and the leads bent over. Pic2

3- The trace channels are filled with a conductive material. Pic3. For this example, I used a commercial conductive paint that is highly conductive, but you can also use conductive epoxy or make your own conductive material. See step 6.

The result is a working circuit board that is not as vibration resistant as a soldered circuit board, but can be quite useful for experimental circuits and prototypes.

Make no mistake, this requires some skill, with better conductive materials, less skill will be required.
While this is not going to replace conventional soldered circuits, anytime soon, it is the beginning of a fully automated 3d printed  circuit.
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Darrell_H1 year ago
Has anyone tried making a traditional copper clad circuit board, but using the 3D printer to lay down the etchant resist directly on the bare copper before etching, instead of trying to transfer laser printer toner with clothing irons, etc.

Don't know if the PLA filament will stick to the copper well enough to act as a good resist during etching, but then be removable later without damaging the remaining copper traces.

There is a recent post about just that.

mikey77 (author)  Darrell_H1 year ago
I have tried it.

Sadly, it does not begin to work. Hot PLA does not stick to copper at all. It does not even stick to copper or nickel or cobalt plated conductive fabric which are all quite porous.

Hot wax does stick well to copper clad boards and a wax extruder in a 3d printer could work extremely well as soon as someone is motivated to make it happen
phrogjlf7 months ago

Very cool idea. You might look into copper nano-particle inks. Using that and an electronic flash to sinter the copper, should take care of the mechanical weakness. I've been looking for a way to increase trace thickness, either before sintering, or sintering multiple layers on top of each other. The tracks you use could solve that issue... still need a coating to prevent the copper from long-term oxidizing, but by having the tracks on bottom, this leaves the component side alone.

awawawaw7 months ago

Very good instructable and your example board came out really nice. I want to do essentially the same with a piece of laser cut Delrin and so far have the settings figured out to dial in the trace etchings for commercial grade conductive inks. However, I like your thoughts on making your own conductive glue and will see what I can do to expand my etchings to accommodate higher resistance. When I make my instructable, I will like back to this one.

phmadore10 months ago

Any tuts with soldered ones on this site?

Jan_Henrik10 months ago

Very nice

DIY-Guy12 months ago

As Mr. Spock would say- "Fascinating."

This could be the beginning research toward making printed circuits on-the-fly. Repair machines might make just the portion of a circuit needed at the time. If a part of a device gets blown away, er, fails to function; it can be replaced with the fragment of circuit needed. No trips to the space-dock, um, I mean warehouse to replace a whole board. Imagine crawling 3D printers doing repairs to both hull and the circuits as needed.

n1cod3mus1 year ago
you know they make conductive filament for 3d printers now
zkus n1cod3mus1 year ago
yeah, but it doesn't work for proper wiring, it has super high resistance, and is meant more for "capacitance sensors" (where you can tell that someone is touching something)
Very, very interesting! Thank you very much for sharing and making a very clear Ible.
I like the non-soldering part very much. That does open a lot of possibilities.
People often repeat that soldering is easy, and at the scale used here it is.
You can even do it with kids, but I do avoid soldering when working with a for example a group of 20 six year olds.
On the other hand you, thoroughly explained this technique does require some attention to detail. But it is still a very interesting way to go and might be tweaked to make it easier for kids. I'm thinking some way to hold the components in place on the board top side that holds (low temp hot glue, click connections, a lid with relief/ offsets holding the parts down). Also a higher outside wall to avoid spilling glue from one side to the other comes to mind. It should of course be easily removed (tear-off design maybe), to allow for easy sanding.
Or maybe a tear-off layer on all the walls, so you can pull off a layer, without sanding, providing the conductive layer holds well on the plastic and tears instead of being pulled from the plastic.
The CuPro-Cote paint sounds very interesting, but does it really need overnight to dry?
I do not want to use epoxy with kids (apart of being allergic to it myself).
So, many thanks!
mikey77 (author)  masynmachien1 year ago
I would think a standard breadboard would be a good way to teach kids circuits. They are easy to hook up and easy to change.

But if you want them to make more permanent circuits, you could print out some larger boards that have trace channels that are separated by wider walls so that it is easier to fill them without overflow and then no sanding would be necessary.

Like most water based paints, when put on thick, the Cupro-Cote paint dries on the outside first and leaves the inside gummy for many hours. You really do have to wait overnight for the components to be held fast.

Another possibility you could consider, would be to draw a schematic on a piece of paper or cardboard and have them fill in the lines with paint and and then glue in components where the symbols are. This paint is very conductive and even a thin flat painted line is very conductive. It does dry faster on paper

It also sticks well to almost anything. You could draw a schematic on a piece of Plexiglas and they could fill in the lines and make transparent circuits.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on that.
Breadboards are rather expensive when you use them only once. In my workshops the kids take their builds home and the materials cost should typically be under 6 EUR. I used to cut up larger breadboards to a fitting size and cost (even the small ones at a couple of dollar are often to large and expensive for my projects)
I should try the paint. I tried Bare Conductive, but its rather high resistivity limits the possibilities.
Working on cardboard would indeed be nice. It also allows to give a clear presentation of the circuit.
-sam-1 year ago
I thought you done it with melted solder, awesome :)
you can also bend some wires and place them on the curves then solder the nodes
This looks like it would be easier to do with surface mount components - 3D print the conductive paint and drop the components on straight away, so long as you were reasonably quick it should stick them in place, and you could always add a drop of glue for extra security. I suppose you could print "chip holders" onto the board to hold components in place too. Being able to 3D print the traces is then viable because there are no projecting leads. Wish I had a 3D printer then I'd know what I'm talking about...
Or maybe leave some voids in one side, for easier placement of surface mount components. Pop them in, turn it over, and let the conductive fluid flow down to the component. I don't know if friction would be sufficient, maybe a drop of hot glue to hold it in place and keep the conductive fluid from going places it shouldn't.
In fact, why copy the flat board pcb paradigm? Since you can now create any shape there's no reason to copy the board format. It's 3D, so why not go vertical too? I can imagine stacked layers (yeah ok so there are multilayer boards already, and buried components do exist), and also components on end inside the substrate. So long as heat isn't an issue of course, but there are some very low power devices around now. Obviously not good for prototyping, which I realise is the intent of this Instructable, but could produce some really nice artistic looking builds. Re friction - it would be if the fit is accurate enough, given that the substrate, being some sort of ABS type stuff, (I understand) has a certain amount of springyness.
I still wonder if you'd have problems with the conductive fluid going places it shouldn't. If it's really friction-held, maybe things are tight enough to keep the fluid from flowing around the component.
Who knows! Maybe the author will be kind enough to try it out and report back the results. I imagine quite a lot work going into a more imaginative build so part of that effort would be making sure everything was made to fit closely.
This may be better conductive material to use (once the kickstarter is over, that is). Circuit Scribe: Draw Circuits Instantly
stoobers1 year ago
You have done the impossible. A circuit board can be printed on a printer, then used as a master for making an army of circuits, which can be spray-painted together and then sanded.
In terms of homemade and semi-homemade circuits, this changes everything.
Wow. Good going. You just blew my mind.
novelchip1 year ago
cool ! Same thing could be done, probably faster, also with CNC milling.
Tormentory1 year ago
Think we could get MakerBot to make a program to let us print with solder? Cuz that would be handy. I have a 2x and it would be pretty great if all we had to do was load a solder spool and print a circuit board for the Arduino.
ehsiung1 year ago
Nice proof of concept. Have you thought about what to do about traces that need to cross? Would it be possible to have multiple layers?
mikey77 (author)  ehsiung1 year ago
It would be a much trickier design, but you could do a double sided circuit board.

An easier way is to glue with conductive paint, surface mounted jumper wires directly on the conductive traces on the bottom of the board.
(removed by author or community request)
By the same logic, the airplane was a superfluous invention, since automobiles, horses and feet were moving people quite nicely, thank you. While I agree that 3D printing often is employed just because one owns a 3D printer, it is precisely this way that genuine advancements are made. While "reinventing the wheel" with new technology may not lead to a breakthrough in that particular instance it may spark a new technique for other projects. One cannot "connect the dots" if there are no dots already in existence to join.
agree with veeguy. one of the most useful things I have seen on a 3D printer to date
I guess my post wasn't too constructive so I've removed it.

Exocetid1 year ago
Interesting project and has promise.

Couple of comments:
  1. Fill the painted channels with epoxy, this might solve the vibration issue.
  2.  I was going to suggest making conductive ABS filament, but a Google search revealed that it exists, albeit with high resistance--but that is as solvable as the vibration issue.

I could see an application that would take a schematic and print a parts holder (essentially what you start with). Then you would insert parts and then put the unit back into the printer, which would be loaded with conductive filament, and it would print the traces. The holder would print such that the components could be trimmed such that the "wiring" process would not only clear the leads but make a good joint as well. 

The early days of wave solder were hardly more sophisticated and manufacturing lines had extensive rework benches set up to fix the many problems that would evolve from using it.
Nice! Seems like it would be easy to extrude the conductive paint in its own nozzle. Why isn't anyone doing that? O.o
mikey77 (author)  TedRobotBuilder1 year ago
Extruding conductive paint or epoxy is mechanically fairly easy. Doing the software to do it over a circuit board with protruding leads at various levels is a little more tricky.

Its not that hard and It will probably be done when there is an economic incentive to do so.
farticus1 year ago
Can you fix the vibration vulnerability concern by potting the entire finished circuit in an epoxy resin to lock everything into place?
mikey77 (author)  farticus1 year ago
The most reliable, vibration resistant circuit can probably be made using conductive epoxy and then, as you suggest, encapsulating the circuit in epoxy or silicone.

To make this utterly reliable, a conductive material that fuses extremely well to copper or tinned component leads is needed.
Hey This is a great idea, great work.
Nice work!!!

Out of the hacky 3d printed / lasercut ways to make circuits - yours seems like the one that's potentially the most useful.

gotta wonder if with the right settings - might be possible to do layout / design for this method using Eagle.

(I did a kind of related project using a lasercutter
Great idea! How about pressing aluminium foil into the channels to make the conductive paths? After checking that the circuit works, seal the channels/back with hot glue ...
Great work! Very interesting.
evalds1 year ago
Great idea!
pmn93931 year ago
I found this, perfect for doing the second step.
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