Introduction: 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.

Step 1: 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.

Step 2: Materials and Tools

MakerBot Replicator 2 or other filament 3d printer. You could also send it to Shape-ways or another commercial 3d printer. The stl files for a circuit board are low in volume and would be fairly inexpensive to have printed by a service.

PLA filament

eye dropper

pointed toothpick


Conductive Copper, CuPro-Cote paint available from:
This is the most conductive and affordable and easy to use conductive material that I have found.
You could also buy conductive silver epoxy, but it is more expensive.
Or, you can make your own conductive glue or paint. See step 6.

Picaxe 08m microcontroller

3 LEDs

3 resistors (see schematic)

Step 3: Design a 3D Printed Circuit Board

I used the free program 123D Design--the beta version, but you should be able to do it with the newest version.

Step 3 Pic-Draw your design in 2d making sure the walls are .03" wide and the trace channels are .07" wide.

Pic2-Extrude the drawing .06" thick, that is the depth of the conductive trace channels that will be later filled with conductive material.

Add a front panel that is .03" thick.

Cut square holes for components that are .07" square. I made mine too small and some of them had to be cleaned out with drill bit. With holes this small, a square hole ends up fairly round when printed. Drawing a round hole here will tend to close up when printed.

Step 4: The Experimental Circuit

This simple circuit was a preliminary test of the whole technique.

You will probably want to try your own circuit, but should anyone be familiar with the Picaxe microcontroller and want to try this circuit, I have provided the STL file, and the schematic.

Here is the simple Picaxe program code that blinks the lights in sequence:


high 1
pause 200
high 2
pause 200
high 4
pause 200

low 1
pause 200
low 2
pause 200
low 4
pause 200
goto loop2

Step 5: Print, Populate, and Glue.

Print the STL file
I used a MakerBot Replicator 2 with the following settings:
Standard resolution with a raft
10% infill
2 shells
.2mm layers-standard resolution
It takes about 8 minutes to print.

Populate the board with components and cut and bend over the leads, see step 5 pic. Make sure the leads do not stick above the channel walls. Generally, the longer the leads the better the electrical connection. If you can double bend the leads, even better.

Glue the Components
I found that an eyedropper with tubing and a tube small enough to fit into the channel the easiest way to fill the channels with conductive paint. Fill them up to just below the height of the walls and don't worry about spillover and shorts. I used a toothpick to work out bubbles and made sure the leads were well surrounded with paint. See pic2. Let it dry overnight at room temperature.

Conductive materials only glue with light to medium strength onto copper or tinned component leads. So care has to be taken to make sure the leads are bent and well surrounded with conductive material so that they have a strong mechanical connection.

Touch Up The Traces
The conductive material will tend to shrink as it dries.
So use fresh paint to fill in any holes or gaps or bubbles.

When the second coat is dry, use sandpaper on a flat surface to knock off any conductive material off the wall that could short the traces. pic3 is the result.

The circuit is done and ready for testing.

Important Considerations
This conductive paint is a water based acrylic or latex paint and as such should not be allowed to freeze.
While it is very affordable, you should be advised that it is copper particles that have been treated with a proprietary process to resist oxidation. So it would probably be a good idea to seal the whole circuit, after it has been tested, with silicone or some other sealer that would prevent moisture or oxygen to enter. Embedding the whole thing in silicone or epoxy would also prevent the components from shifting under vibration or pressure and losing their connections.

Conductive epoxy, although more expensive, would probably work the best best for longer lasting circuits as it is a stronger and more moisture resistant conductor.

Step 6: Make Your Own Conductive Glue or Paint

Commercially made conductive materials like silver filled epoxy or the copper-based paint I used here are highly conductive. The conductive trace channels are .07" wide and .06" deep. In such a channel, the conductive paint has a resistance of around 1 ohm per inch.

You can make your own conductive materials but they will have a higher resistance than the commercial products. Typically they have a resistance of 200 ohms or more per inch in this size of a channel. So, if you try making your own, it would be a good idea to make the trace channels two or three times as deep to lower the resistance.

Make Conductive Glue
Here are the details on how to make your own conductive glue:

Or here:

Make Conductive Rubber
Here are details on how to make your own conductive rubber:

Or here:

Step 7: Other Possibilities

Totally Automated 3d Printed Circuit Board Print
It should be possible at some point, to print Plastic and solder or a conductive material at the same time to create a full circuit board in one or two prints. A component holder would be printed, components would be inserted, and then the board and conductive traces would be printed to hook the circuit together.

Circuit Shells
You could make a circuit that is part of the device case

Coils And Antennas
Some small coils and high frequency antennas can be made that are part of the case of the device.

Low value capacitors and high voltage capacitors can also be made using this method.

Curved Circuit Boards
The circuit can be made as part of the structure or enclosure of a device. For example, a circuit could be made as part of the 'bones" or exoskeleton of a robot. Step 7 pic shows a curved circuit board lantern I made using bendable, conventional circuit boards:

Similar things could be 3d printed.


link2_thepast made it!(author)2015-05-29

This is really cool! I especially like that you used a PICAXE, this is the first time I've seen an Instructible that uses one.

edward.chamberlain made it!(author)2015-12-24

There are so few PICAXE users out there! Personally I think they're great chips, easy to use and pretty cheap! They are my go to for projects and is playing a key part in a clock in making!

magkopian made it!(author)2015-12-24

Because PICAXE devices are essentially
Microchip PIC devices, with pre-programmed firmware. If you use a PICAXE
you are restricted to using either the version of BASIC of PICAXE, or a
flowchart based system.

That's why most people just use a PIC
microcontroller and they program it in any language they want or use the
bootloader of their choice.

shaynehqzanybihbd made it!(author)2016-10-29

Its fine for prototyping. We used to use the basic stamps to prototype ideas, because the electonics dudes could come up with some basic logic and then when the idea was proved , it'd be moved to a proper chipset and I'd code up the firmware in forth or C

edward.chamberlain made it!(author)2015-12-24

While this is true, for a beginner it's really useful using basic and everything being fairly simple. They are great chips for education and for hobbiest who don't want to spend too much time getting into the programming ?

magkopian made it!(author)2015-12-24

For beginners I agree they are great, but since Arduino was invented anyone seem to go that way. I feel like before Arduino PICAXEs were far more popular.

edward.chamberlain made it!(author)2015-12-24

Yeah! I feel you're probably right. The arduino platform is great and I really think all schools should teach electronics but especially coding from a young age. The only problem is that they're expensive, large and not great for permanent applications. Once you're done prototyping you'd need to find a whole new chip to use which slightly defeats the point. I know my old high school uses PICAXE still and they can get away with just giving the chips to whoever needs them and they can embed them into the pcbs for ever more.

magkopian made it!(author)2015-12-24

After you are done programming on an Arduino you can always pop the microcontroller out and use it on a breadboard, or a perfboard, or even a custom PCB with a just a couple of components. Furthermore, to burn the bootloader on a new ATmega328P the only think you need is just another Arduino, not even an AVR programmer. So, can buy only one Arduino Uno and from that point just ATmega328P microcontrollers. There are also many Chinese clones of Arduino Uno on eBay for even less that 4€.

SteveMann made it!(author)2016-02-03

Thanks for posting this great tutorial.

wsecomp made it!(author)2015-12-24

Conductive material...liquid solder? Granted, it wouldn't be a true "solderless" design, but it would retain the conductivity, as well as be more resilient to vibration and such.

BobbyZ1 made it!(author)2015-12-24

A good idea, but I'm pretty sure most solders would melt right through the PLA in short order and just make a puddle out of it. Remember, the extruder head is in the neighborhood of 225ºC when it's melting the PLA for the print, and at least I do soldering (lead free) with the iron set to about 371ºC (700ºF). That said, you can get get solders, probably with higher lead mixtures, with quite low melting points, and these may well work as per your suggestion.

wsecomp made it!(author)2015-12-26

Liquid solder is a little different. It's almost like a paste. I used it when I was a kid, but don't know if it's still made or not. I think the closest thing now is 'solder glue' or 'wire glue'.

tab328 made it!(author)2015-12-26

Also with solder is it wants to stick to the metals, if the goal is to fill the trenches, you might have some problems. With soldering however, perhaps you could put some copper down in there flattened out with a hammer? Stiill the temperature, but that might be avoided. I suppose I'll go print me a pcb and test these theories and get back to this.

bkstmm made it!(author)2015-12-26

What about adding some small strands of copper wire in the tracks before the paint or conductive goop is added. The strands would be closer to the component leads and less ohms between components. A little twist in the wire at each lead could improve the connection. I do not have a 3D printer but have a cnc router and will someday build a print head for my router and try to print something. At a loss of how to program a 3D printer!

EMCguy made it!(author)2015-12-24

Chip Quik is a low temperature solder meant for repair of surface mount circuits. I has a melting point of only 136 degrees F. It is low resistance. I have no idea if and extruder could be adapted to use it and it's expensive, but the temperature works.

DejayRezme made it!(author)2015-12-24

Nice. Very interesting research, thank you!

I guess what we really want is a solder extruder and a special non-conductive filament that this solder sticks easily to. Or some kind of flux that works.

What would make solder stick to 3D printed plastic? I saw some experiments with solder on plastic and the main problem is that it just blobs like crazy. You need some stickiness.

I'm just starting to learn electronics with arduino but the idea of an automatic circuit process really fascinates me. Making a PCB and soldering hundreds of tiny SMD pieces like todays circuits are designed is somewhat imposing. I guess the main drawback to your technique is that 1 ohm per inch is still quite high? I'd guess it a lot of voltage drop and heat produced for some applications. But I'm a newbie so maybe it isn't that limiting for many applications.

dan3008 made it!(author)2015-12-24

a true PCB then ;) lol

RowanCant made it!(author)2015-04-30

This is clever! It will be interesting to see whether factories in the future will begin 3d printing in a range of materials for resistance, capacitance, etc until a TV becomes a screen with a chip.

Darrell_H made it!(author)2013-12-15

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.

donpdonp made it!(author)2014-12-14

There is a recent post about just that.

mikey77 made it!(author)2013-12-15

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

phrogjlf made it!(author)2014-08-19

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.

awawawaw made it!(author)2014-08-11

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.

phmadore made it!(author)2014-05-09

Any tuts with soldered ones on this site?

Jan_Henrik made it!(author)2014-05-09

Very nice

DIY-Guy made it!(author)2014-03-31

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.

n1cod3mus made it!(author)2013-12-16

you know they make conductive filament for 3d printers now

zkus made it!(author)2013-12-27

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)

masynmachien made it!(author)2013-12-15

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 made it!(author)2013-12-15

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.

masynmachien made it!(author)2013-12-18

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- made it!(author)2013-12-17

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

throbscottle made it!(author)2013-12-16

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...

tgsnyder made it!(author)2013-12-16

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.

throbscottle made it!(author)2013-12-16

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.

tgsnyder made it!(author)2013-12-17

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.

throbscottle made it!(author)2013-12-17

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.

Michael+Bell made it!(author)2013-12-16

This may be better conductive material to use (once the kickstarter is over, that is). Circuit Scribe: Draw Circuits Instantly

stoobers made it!(author)2013-12-16

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.

novelchip made it!(author)2013-12-16

cool ! Same thing could be done, probably faster, also with CNC milling.

Tormentory made it!(author)2013-12-15

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.

ehsiung made it!(author)2013-12-15

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 made it!(author)2013-12-15

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.

veeguy made it!(author)2013-12-15

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.

mist42nz made it!(author)2013-12-15

agree with veeguy. one of the most useful things I have seen on a 3D printer to date

The+Fettler made it!(author)2013-12-15

I guess my post wasn't too constructive so I've removed it.

Exocetid made it!(author)2013-12-15
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.
TedRobotBuilder made it!(author)2013-12-15

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 made it!(author)2013-12-15

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.

farticus made it!(author)2013-12-13

Can you fix the vibration vulnerability concern by potting the entire finished circuit in an epoxy resin to lock everything into place?

About This Instructable




Bio: I believe that the purpose of life is to learn how to do our best and not give in to the weaker way.
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