Rise of 3-D Printing Set to Transform Embedded Systems Market

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The rise of 3-D printing promises to bring profound changes to the embedded systems market—accelerating the prototyping process in the short-term, and yielding revolutionary products that blur the lines between physical and electronic designs further in the future.

Worldwide the market revenue for the 3-D printing industry is forecast to grow by nearly 40 percent annually through 2020, when the aggregated market size is expected to exceed $35 billion, up from $5.6 billion in 2014, according to the market research firm IHS Inc.

Often called additive manufacturing, 3-D printing is defined as the layering of material to make objects of all kinds. With 3-D printed objects based on computer-designed models, additive manufacturing can easily produce objects that are far more complex than is possible with conventional subtractive manufacturing techniques.

Initially 3-D printers employed polymer plastics. However, additive manufacturing now is using a broader range of raw materials, including metals and cutting-edge nanomaterials like graphene.

One of the most obvious applications for 3-D printing is rapid prototyping.

According to former IHS analyst Alex Chausovsky, 3-D printing is a much less expensive approach to creating prototypes than traditional manufacturing techniques, eliminating the need for custom tooling or injection molds. Chausovsky noted that in the past, Ford Motor Co. would take as long as four months and $500,000 to prototype an engine intake manifold. With 3-D printing, Ford engineers now need only four days and $3,000.

Aided by additive manufacturing, engineers can test designs, implement changes and test new configurations to an extent that would not be possible before. Due to the cost of 3-D printing, the impact of the technology is likely to be limited to the prototyping process in the near future. For embedded systems teams facing rising demand to cut development times, 3-D printing may help shorten development times for the mechanical segments of designs.

The technology of 3-D printing could also reduce development times for printed circuit boards (PCBs), according to VDC Research. PCB development can take a significant amount of time, and re-spins can be expensive and lengthy. VDC observed that PCBs and even capacitors could be printed using 3-D printing technology. This would allow a team to produce a testable prototype within hours of designing it. This could have a dramatic impact on time-to-market. 

As 3-D printing technology improves and costs decline, the technology could be used for actual manufacturing of systems. This may allow 3-D printed electronics to be integrated directly into the mechanical portions or enclosures of equipment.

VDC envisions new high-speed 3-D systems capable of using nanomaterial ink to print electronic circuitry. As an example, such a system could produce a car bumper that is manufactured with an electronic collision-avoidance system embedded into its structure.

Such 3-D printing technology would radically change the embedded systems development process, unifying physical and electronic engineering into a single seamless process that could yield products that are unimaginable today.

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