For decades, traditional manufacturing methods have been standard in the electronics industry, allowing for fine-tuned processes, quality control and high production volumes when producing printed circuit boards (PCBs), casings and other electronic components.
But now, smart manufacturing methods like additive manufacturing are creating an even more agile and productive industrial base…
So, what are the core differences between traditional and additive manufacturing — and how can they benefit the electronics manufacturing industry?
What is traditional manufacturing?
Traditional subtractive manufacturing processes vary depending on the project and material, but computer numerical control (CNC) machining is one of the most common methods used for manufacturing PCBs, semiconductors, electronic components and casings.
CNC machining is a computerised manufacturing process whereby pre-programmed software and code control the production equipment — telling it how to make the necessary holes, channels and cuts.
This technology has served the electronics manufacturing industry for decades. So, what are the benefits and drawbacks of CNC machining?
- Used for a wide range of materials. From copper PCBs to plastic or metal enclosures that function as an electronic device’s exterior shell, CNC machining works with various materials.
- Allows for a high level of precision. As the electronics industry demands smaller, more precise design packages, manufacturers rely on CNC machining to work with intricate electronics — such as semiconductors, PCBs, connectors and sockets — with exceptionally tight tolerances.
- Offers reliability for manufacturers. The processes of CNC machining can be repeated over and over again without deviating from the original design, increasing efficiency and creating a fast turnaround for components.
- Contributes to a reduction in manufacturing costs. CNC machining creates prototypes that can be tested and refined before mass production begins — preventing errors before they make it to the manufacturing stage.
- High initial costs. Advanced CNC machines may be more appropriate for large production runs where efficiency and productivity significantly affect the machining cost. Plus, maintenance and operational costs increase alongside the complexity of the machine.
- Required expertise. Operating a CNC machine requires a specialist with knowledge of programmable codes and an in-depth understanding of the machine.
- Unavoidable material waste. Traditional manufacturing processes, such as CNC machining, typically generate a lot of waste in the form of chips, so manufacturers need to dispose of these (or recycle!) responsibly.
What is additive manufacturing?
Additive manufacturing (AM) is the process of joining materials to make parts from 3D model data (via 3D printing), typically layer upon layer, as opposed to traditional subtractive manufacturing processes.
The diversity of possible additive manufacturing applications spans the entire electronics industry, from heat exchangers and component housings to three-dimensional circuit boards and inductors.
But like all processes, it comes with its advantages and disadvantages…
- Rapid prototyping. The low cost and fast speed of producing a single item with additive manufacturing make it easy to create a prototype and see how it performs in its intended environment. Computer-aided design (CAD) can then make any changes or adjustments needed and the process is repeated for efficiency and reliability.
- Fast production turnaround. Traditional manufacturing methods require tooling to be made to produce the final items — causing a delay in time and an increase in cost. With AM, once the final prototype has been approved, the same equipment can be used for production.
- Increased design flexibility. When manufacturing PCBs, designers can create complex shapes and designs that would be almost impossible to achieve with traditional methods — allowing for more creativity in PCB design and more efficient circuit boards.
- Better waste management. Unlike traditional manufacturing methods, additive manufacturing produces relatively little waste. Generally, AM only uses the material required to build a part — using raw materials that can be reused for following production runs.
- Limited materials. Although additive manufacturing can build electronic components with plastics and metals, the range is limited. When manufacturing electronic casings, for example, most 3D printers use plastic-based materials that may not have the desired properties — such as strength, durability, heat resistance or electrical insulation.
- Slow printing process. Whilst additive manufacturing can speed up prototyping and the overall time to production for small volumes, the actual process of printing a part can be slow compared to traditional methods. This is largely because AM still has slow build rates and cannot yet provide an efficient way to scale operations to produce a high volume of parts.
- Research and development costs. Additive manufacturing methods are still a relatively new form of manufacturing — which means there can be a significant investment in research and development when working with new processes and materials.
Out with the old and in with the new?
Though the debate between traditional versus additive manufacturing continues, the electronics industry does not have to choose one over the other. In fact, the two methods can work together cohesively to achieve the task at hand…
Depending on the project — the application’s specific requirements, the volume of production, the complexity of the parts and the desired properties of the finished product — combining additive and traditional manufacturing can help centralise processes, manage higher demands and meet customer needs.
As the electronics industry continues to evolve, both traditional and developed methods have a firm grip on manufacturing processes.
At Swan EMS, we keep our finger on the pulse of the electronics industry and aim to provide first-class manufacturing services to benefit our customers. To discuss how we can help with your next project, contact us at 01495 320 989 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.