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You can etch flexible circuit boards using a 3d printer. They can be made of very thin copper clad board material or even conductive fabric.

Standard copper clad circuit board material (FR4) of any thickness, can also be etched using this method.

Step 1: How It Works

PLA, Nylon, ABS and most common filaments used for 3d printing do not stick to copper well enough to lay down a pattern that can be etched to create a circuit board. A fairly new elastomeric rubber filament is now available that sticks quite well to copper. It is called Ninjaflex. In fact, it sticks quite well to almost anything including acrylic, blue painters tape, and glass.

A circuit board pattern can be drawn in a free program like 123D Design and then extruded to a thin thickness and saved as an STL file. It can then be printed on top of a thin copper clad board or plated conductive fabric: step 1 pic. It can then be etched in the standard way with a Ferric Chloride solution.

The circuit board shown was printed at standard breadboard and perfboard spacing of traces at .1" centers. This fits standard through hole components and some surface mount ones. Pic 2 shows the finished circuit, a Picaxe microcontroller.

If you want a thin and light circuit, this layout works well. To get more flex, the components would have to be spaced further apart.

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Step 2: Supplies

Access to a 3d filament printer. I used a Makerbot Replicator 2 but other printers with the right extruder should work.

White Ninjaflex filament. I also tried black and water clear Ninjaflex filament but they did not stick near as well as the white. Other colors might work.
Available from Adafruit: http://www.adafruit.com/products/
Or:
http://www.3dsupplyworld.com/flexible/

Scissor cut copper clad circuit board material (.004"). Available from: http://www.goldmine-elec-products.com/products.as...
OR
PURE COPPER POLYESTER TAFFETA FABRIC (.002"). Available from: http://www.lessemf.com/fabric.html
OR
Super thin copper clad circuit board Pyralux material (<.001"). Available from Adafruit: http://www.adafruit.com/products/1894

Clear shelf lining material available from WalMart

Loctite spray on Adhesive available from WalMart

123D Design or other 3d program that can create and manipulate STL files.

Ferric Chloride available from: http://www.mpja.com
Other etchants may work, but I have not tried them.

Fine steel wool.

Acetone- available from WalMart

Duct tape

Step 3: Draw The Circuit Pattern

Draw It
I used 123d design Beta to make the circuit board pattern. It was drawn and then extruded to .011" thick.

I designed it to make the traces on .1" centers. They are .06" wide with a .04" gap between them. This is standard breadboard spacing which fits through hole components and some surface mount components.

Spacer Bar
A spacer bar is then added on the side of the pattern which the 3d printer extruder will reach first. The idea is for the bottom of the spacer bar to sit on the base and the top of the spacer bar to be at the height of the bottom of the circuit board pattern.

When it is printed it prints the spacer bar first on the base and then jumps to the circuit board material and starts printing at the right height to accommodate the thickness of the circuit board material. This works well for the 3 thin circuit board materials mentioned in Supplies. They all have a thickness of about .07" and a spacer of .004" worked well.

If you are using a thicker circuit board material you will have to extrude the bottom of the spacer bar to allow for the extra thickness.

Step 4: Fine Tune Your 3D printer

To print using ninjaflex, you will need to fine tune your 3d printer. This will take some fiddling around.
A heated bed is not required.

Check Your Extruder
Ninjaflex is a bit tricky to print out and will only work on printers that have the right drive block for the extruder. For an older Replicator 2 you must install Makerbots upgrade kit which includes a spring and a roller bearing. You must also download from Thingiverse the new drive block for the kit and print it out.

If you have a different 3d printer, you should check out Thingiverse for drive blocks that use a spring and roller bearing that will fit your printer. There should be a very small gap (orange arrow) below the bearing and drive gear and the hole where it goes into the hot end of the extruder. Ninjaflex is like a wet noodle and an excessive gap here will allow it to flex and jam.

Level The Bed
There is a very small margin of error for printing a thin coating on copper. To close and the extruder will clog, too far, and it will not stick well enough to etch.

Your bed has to be very flat and very, very level. Nothing else will do.

Use calibration.stl to fine tune the leveling of the bed. Print it onto the middle of the bed in PLA. Measure all the ends and make sure they are within .002" of each other in thickness. Do Not skip this step.

Make A Trial Print
Using circuitpat.stl, print the circuit board pattern in Ninjaflex directly on the printer bed. Mark the edges of the pattern on the bed and then peel off the pattern. Use it to cut flexible circuit board material larger than the pattern.

Replicator 2 Settings
These settings work well for a Replicator 2. If you use a different printer, you may have to play with the settings.

Infill: 100 per cent
Shells: 2
Layer Height: .2mm
Temp: 225 C
Speed Extruding: 15 mm/s
Speed Traveling: 150 mm/s

No Supports

Step 5: Fasten The Circuit Board Material

The thin flexible board material (scissor cut) has to be dead flat on the print bed with no bumps or curls. I tried taping it down and got bad results. The only thing that has worked so far is to use spray-on adhesive on the bottom of the board.

First rub the top of the circuit board with fine steel wool to remove any oxidation. Then take it outside and spray it on the bottom side with the spray adhesive. Then bring it inside and stick it on the printer base while it is still fairly wet. Use a piece of rounded flat plastic to burnish it down, working from the center out.

Step 6: Print the Circuit Pattern

Print the circuit pattern and then check to see how well it sticks to the copper circuit board. If it smears around, it is too close and you will have to adjust the STL file in 123D Design and thicken the spacer bar. If it does not adhere well you may have to make the spacer bar thinner.

Step 7: Etch The Circuit

Carefully peal off the Ninjaflex printed board from the printer base. Be careful not to put any pressure on the printed Ninjaflex. Now is a good time to remove any adhesive residue from the bed. Use duct tape and burnish it down and then peal it off. Repeat until bed is clean.

Use Acetone to remove any adhesive residue sticking to the bottom of the board. This will allow the bottom copper cladding to be etched off. Then place the board into standard Ferric Chloride etching solution. My scissor cut boards took about 40 minutes at room temperature. Remove and clean well with water.

Step 8: Etching Conductive Fabric

If you want even more flexible circuits, you can etch conductive fabric. This is particularly useful if you want to make a circuit that will be continuously flexed such as a ribbon cable or led strip lights.

You can etch conductive fabric in the same manner as described in the previous steps. The only addition you must make is to attach some of the self sticking shelving material to the bottom of the circuit board. Measure it. If the shelving material and fabric is thicker than about .007" you may have to adjust the spacer bar in the Stl file. Spray adhesive on the attached shelving material and burnish the fabric down on the printer base.

Conductive fabric etches very fast. The one in the picture took about five minutes.

Pic 3 shows the Adafruit Pyralux board that was etched the same way. The board material is very thin, less than .001"

You can use this conductive paint (CuPro-Cote PAINT) to glue on components:

http://lessemf.com/paint.html

Keep in mind that glued components are not nearly as sturdy as soldered components.

Or you can make your own conductive glue: http://www.instructables.com/id/Make-Conductive-G...

Step 9: Other Possibilities

Surface Mount Circuit Boards
The sample circuit board has the traces set at .1" centers. The thinnest traces I have etched so far are about .03" wide on .05" centers. This spacing will fit a SOIC sized surface mount IC just fine.

Here is a way I like to mount SOIC sized components on etched breadboards: http://www.instructables.com/id/Picaxe-Projects-1...

Using Ninjaflex
Ninjaflex is a very interesting material that can be used to print all kinds of other things besides circuit boards. It is quite tough and cut resistant, yet it is quite flexible. It can be used to print wallets, hinges, tubes, lanterns, flashlights, and other sturdy things.

Flexible Circuit Boards Without A 3D Printer
You can hand cut the shelf liner material into circuit patterns and etch boards that way. You will, of course, be limited by your ability to cut precisely.

Details can be found here: http://www.instructables.com/id/Curved-Circuit-Ar...
And here:
http://www.instructables.com/id/Curved-Circuit-Boa...

If you leave a fair amount of copper on the boards you can make permanently curved boards (step 9 pic).

<p>Would it be possible to make a replacement for an old JVC tweeter diaphragm?</p><p>I have one that it was plugged in the wrong channel and now has a little hole on it, due to the amplified bass who got caught in the middle x)</p>
It might be possible to 3d print a diaphragm with ninjaflex.<br>It would most likely change the sound characteristics of the speaker.<br><br>You might be better off if you cover the hole by gluing a similar material to the diaphragm using a flexible glue.
<p>I definitely going to try this with my m3d. Awesome.</p>
<p>Really cool, but still loving PCB toner transfer paper from ebay: the quickest, easiest and cheapest way.</p>
<p>Very impressive and helpful!</p><p>Recently FD has released another flex filament: <strong>Semiflex</strong>. It's announced with better <strong>resolution</strong>. Do you think it might work well in this situation for some chips with small footprint?</p><p>Thanks again for your inspiring article.</p>
<p>It could happen.</p><p>Why don't you try it and see if it works?</p>
<p>An engineer of FD has just told me that SemiFlex does hold better detail than NinjaFlex. I can imagine that it wouldn't attach the surface very well. So, don't try it.</p><p>Thank you for your opinion.</p>
<p>Have you given any thought about what might happen if you use sodium persulfate as an echant? Wondering how it would react with NinjaFlex, as the chemical is a strong oxidizer.<br></p><p>Very cool Instructable btw (and a fan of some of your other ones too)!</p>
<p>This is awesome</p>
<p>wats the most complex ciurcut u have done so far?</p>
<p>I like the concept and the inventiveness of using 3-D printers in yet another new and creative way, but I hope people realize the easier and more efficient way of making printed circuit boards is through the proven methods of a CNC milling machine. You simply etch straight onto the circuit board with a spindle. It allows for quicker and more elaborate prints.</p>
<p>There are many good ways to make circuit boards and a CNC machine is certainly a good way. If you notice the title, this is about making flexible circuit boards.</p><p>The Adafruit material is less than .001&quot; thick. No way you can mill that without cutting through it. You also cannot mill a circuit with conductive fabric.</p>
I was unaware of that, so is this a contest entry? A possible cheaper and quicker way to make circuit boards would be using an average desktop printer and there are many projects out there that show you how to print your design in toner and then use etching chemicals to etch the circuit. However the reason I like the CNC over those methods is because it doesn't harm the environment. Etchants are corrosive and therefore not eco-friendly. Milling eliminates the need for chemicals. Maybe if someone could invent an eco friendly etchant, that would be quite the contest. More chemical engineering but I haven't seen a challenging contest for a chemist anyways.
<p>While I think your instructable is well done and very clever use of a 3D printer, I think the title needs to be changed. I jumped at the link to this instructable because I had thought you were using some sort of conductive filament to &quot;make flexible circuit boards using a 3D printer&quot; but discovered you are using a to &quot;make a PCB etching mask with a 3D printer&quot;. </p><p>As I said, this instructable is well done and clever, so keep up the good work.</p>
<p>Do you think you can make a strain gauge with this?</p>
very nice, I did wonder a while back if this would work so really glad someone has put in the effort! how fine can you make the traces?
<p>The thinnest traces I have etched so far are .03&quot; on .05&quot; centers. This spacing will fit a SOIC sized surface mount IC.</p>
<p>This is an ingenious idea! I like the idea of the spacer making the rest of the circuit print above the level of the circuit board, but surely the makerbot will try to print support material under the floating parts? You probably need to disable support material in your print settings, which you have probably done but I didn't see mentioned in the instructable. Not doing this sounds like a sure fire way to get the extruder to crash into your PCB.</p>
<p>Good point.</p><p>I have added no support to the replicator settings.</p><p>In practice with thin circuit boards, it turns out not to be a problem. The extruder just pushes down on the spring loaded base and moves on.</p><p>With thicker boards, it could definitely be a problem if supports were on.</p>
<p>Why not just use a laser printer and the toner transfer method to create the resist pattern?</p>
<p>Yes, that works fine.</p><p>This method is slightly faster than toner transfer and produces cleaner and more consistant traces than any other DIY method I have used.</p>
<p>Please correct me if I'm wrong, but what you've done is provide a way to mask portions of a PC board from etchant using a 3D printer. Any flexibility in the final board is a product of the underlying board you printed on top of. Would it not be easier to tape an ink resist pen to your printhead and use it like a pen-plotter (some some software changes would be needed of course).</p>
<p>It is not that simple.</p><p>You need a make a spring loaded pen holder with just the right amount of pressure.</p><p>The software changes would not be trivial.</p><p>I have also gotten sloppy and inconsistant results when using a resist pen.</p>
You need to take this article down and patent this, this is awesome
<p>A little too late to patent it since it has been exposed to the public domain, sorry. Fantastic idea though. Bravo.</p>
<p>Tell that to Amazon and their patent on &quot;taking photos in front of a white background&quot; :)</p>
<p>It's all in the claims mate. No you have to tell that to firstly a ptent examiner and then a judge in any final stage of patent validity.</p>
<p>Imagine the applications!</p>
<p>Awesome spin on making pcb's!!! Well done! Great sources of thin PCB too!</p>
<p>This is awesome. Now people can make replacement ribbon cables for small electronics and such!</p>

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