In the last several years, much research has gone into the possibility of using 3D printers to create functional electronic devices. Now, researchers at the University of Nottingham have gotten one step closer to that goal by developing a method for printing complete electronic circuits using new types of 3D printable ink. This new process promises both expanded capabilities in the area of 3D-printed electronics and considerably reduced printing times.

The process developed by the research team utilizes two separate types of 3D ink. The first is a metallic ink that can conduct electricity, while the second is a polymer ink used to insulate printed electronic components. Both of these inks were developed to harden when exposed to UV light, allowing them to be 3D printed in a process, not unlike traditional stereolithography. The ability to print two different materials together in this way vastly increases the possible range of electronic components that can be 3D printed.

 

Another major breakthrough made by the University of Nottingham research team while developing this process was a considerable reduction in the amount of time it takes to print the metallic, conductive ink. Though conductive inks for 3D printing have existed for some time, they have historically taken too long to print to be of much functional use. By including silver nanoparticles that could more effectively absorb UV light in the new conductive ink, however, the researchers were able to reduce the hardening time for each layer of conductive ink to less than one minute. Though still slow compared to other methods of creating electronic circuits, this reduced hardening time represents a considerable advancement when compared with other 3D printable conductive inks.

Going forward, researchers at Nottingham hope to collaborate with colleagues from other universities and with private businesses to build on this new 3D printing method. With time, this project could pave the way for functional electronic devices to be created using 3D printers. This research project and others like it clearly illustrate the leading role that 3D printing technology will play in the future of advanced manufacturing. With the technology becoming increasingly prevalent, it’s important that students in today’s schools be acquainted with it as part of their education. Using classroom 3D printers, such as those offered by Me3D, is one of the best ways to help students get hands-on experience with a technology that may one day dominate several areas of the manufacturing sector.