Researchers from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, have created a 3D-printed drone that is almost completely flight-ready straight out of the 3D printer by using printed embedded electronics.
3D Printing and Electronics
3D printed technology (which has been around for several decades) has only become popular with makers in the past five years thanks to reduction in part costs, research into printable materials, and improvements in technology. Printed technology, despite taking longer to manufacture a specific part (as compared to dedicated manufacturing plants), has some significant advantages.
For example, a plastic injection moulding machine can make plastic parts in seconds for pennies apiece, but only if several thousand are made. A 3D printer however, will spend 10 hours creating the same part but only costing pennies per part without the need for mass production. This is due to the fact that 3D printers are not dedicated machines that can only produce a specific part.
Typically utilizing three-axes, 3D printers move a molten plastic dispensing head to locations that need to contain material. These heads then extrude the plastic out, layer by layer, printing the design until the entire part has been produced.
Even though these printers take many hours to produce a part, they are in fact one of the most cost-effective and convenient forms of rapid manufacturing techniques with emphasis in prototyping parts.
Imagine the scenario where a company is designing a new product with two teams: the mechanical engineers (who are responsible for the casing) and the electronics engineers (who are responsible for the internal circuitry). Initially, the electronics team decides on dimensions and screw hole locations which the mechanical engineers take and design a suitable housing from. Halfway throughthe design phase, however, the electronics team decide to use a larger component (for example, a larger electrolytic capacitor) which results in the enclosure not being big enough. This problem may go unnoticed right up until the enclosure design has been received from rapid manufacturing company.
The use of a 3D printer would not only reduce the cost for prototyping for the department, but it would also allow both teams to test out prototypes faster and catch design flaws. I've seen this scenario play out at a place of employment where delays and multiple issues could have been avoided by having a 3D printer available.
3D printers can produce many different types of parts. Image courtesy of SparkFun Electronics [CC BY 2.0]
3D printers are great for prototyping plastic parts and enclosures––but what about a complete product? Is it possible to embed electronics into a 3D-printed design as it is being produced? What about designs that cannot afford to have gaps and screw holes?
Unfortunately, most consumer electronic parts are rated for a temperature range between -40ºC to 125ºC whereas 3D printers can be as hot as 300ºC (depending on the material). This means that if electronics were placed inside a 3D printed design during the printing phase then there would be a good chance that the high temperature would damage components.
If electronicscouldbe implanted during the construction phase, then 3D printing could become a serious form of manufacture for the future.
This is exactly the vision of researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
A Complete Drone
Researchers from Singapore had to overcome two problems to successfully implant electronics into a 3D-printed enclosure.
The first problem they had to surnount was choosing the material that the drone was to be made of. The chosen material for the drone was ULTEM 9085, which is an FDM thermoplastic that is ideal for aerospace, automotive, and military applications. This gives the drone a chassis that has a high strength-to-weight ratio, as well as exhibiting strong thermal and chemical resistance.
The second problem was the temperature that the components had to survive, which was solved using a two-pronged attack. Firstly, commercial-grade electronics were modified to cope with the temporary heat during construction. Secondly, the components were fitted during specific steps of the manufacture process as to prevent the heat from damaging the parts. The only two components that had to be installed after the chassis was complete were the motors and propellers (naturally).
The time needed to construct the drone was just 14 hours with three interrupts needed to add the components with their heat-resistant modifications. The chassis (made of ULTEM 9085) is capable of supporting up to 60kg of weight and is ready to fly once the 3D printer has finished and the motors have been installed.
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The Future of 3D Printing
3D printing is showing the world how anyone can have their custom designs be constructed on demand with no tooling skills required. But how will electronics be affected by 3D printing?
This research from Nanyang Technological University hints at a future where pick-and-place machines may be integrated into 3D printers. This would allow a circuit to be constructed and implanted on-the-go as the machine also prints out the casing. The result could be production lines that are nearly fully autonomous with very little human intervention.
A hybrid 3D printer/pick-and-place could be a desktop device that only requires the user to load generic parts and feed in a design specification. The machine, from there, could construct all the casings, route out a PCB, attach components, and then install all the parts to where they are needed.
If new materials that can be printed quickly are developed, then this type of technology could replace the current method of mass production. The commercial opportunities that are presented by 3D construction technology are potentially huge with companies purchasing all in-house production equipment for prototyping without the need for sending designs out.
Furthermore, companies not having to send designs to manufacturers and production houses could help prevent designs being stolen and reproduced which is a common problem. Just like solar panels, all that is needed now is further reduction is cost such that purchasing a small 3D printer is comparable to purchasing a printer or other commonly used devices.
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