Caleb Garling over at Wired just posted an interesting article about another new potential application for 3D printing - this time it's 3D printed circuit boards. He quotes David ten Have, CEO of Ponoko (a new breed of company similar in ways to Quirky's personal product development business model).
According to ten Have, we're rapidly approaching the point where 3D printers will be able to print circuit boards. The implications for mass-customization here are loud and clear. Manufacturers would then be able to quickly and efficiently produce different configurations for small batch runs or alternatively, offer many more standard products from a much larger product portfolio than is feasible today.
Judging by the content of ten Have's quote (and the photo of the Objet Connex 3D printed wheel at the head of the article) he may be referring specifically to inkjet-based 3D printing as the enabler of this innovation, maybe because of inkjet's unique ability to mix various material properties into a single 3D printed part.
Following this line of thinking then, we could reach a point not too far off in the future, (whether its two years as ten Have claims, or more I don't know), where inkjet-based 3D printing materials will be able to simulate substrate semi-conductive properties. We've already reached the point today where jetted resin photopolymers can simulate ABS-grade engineering plastics - so why not semi-conductors?
Using an Objet Connex multi-material 3D printer it would then be simplicity itself to rapidly manufacture the entire customized circuit-board - both the rigid board itself and the conductive circuitry - in a single integrated, simultaneous step!
GPS prototype printed on the multi-material Objet Connex 3D printer - could the map lines become circuitry in future?
(Below) Electrical wiring can already be integrated within Objet 3D printed shells - maybe we'll be printing the wiring along with the shell in a few years..