IDTechEx Evaluates the Sustainability of 3D Electronics
May 09, 2022
As electronics continue to invade more and more aspects of our daily lives, there is an obvious trend toward greater integration. Other than just simply making space for a rigid 2D circuit board (PCB) within a product, electronic functionality will be either mounted conformally onto surfaces or incorporated within the structural materials.
Discussed by IDTechEx, these manufacturing methodologies can collectively be termed ‘3D electronics’. They offer greater design freedom, with opportunities for imaginative form factors to provide differentiation in consumer devices. However, this integration of electronic with structural functionality presents questions regarding sustainability.
Combating the Difficulties in Recycling
The greatest sustainability concern for 3D electronics is the ease of recycling. Mounting electronic components, such as conductive traces, surface mount devices, micro-controllers, and sensors, within or on the surface of the main structural material creates separating out the differing materials for recycling more challenging. However, conventional manufacturing methods allow for the removal of electronics and then the residual plastic recycled.
Despite the difficulty, 3D/integrated electronics offers benefits to recyclability. The main advantage is the decreased material mix, which helps separation and sorting. IDTechEx describes 3D electronics as components with electronic functionality that can be constructed using just four different materials. For example, an LED lightbulb can be made from structural plastic, conductive ink, conductive adhesive, and the LEDs themselves. This is a considerable simplification relative to the conventionally manufactured alternative which generally incorporates a PCB.
Another added benefit of integrating electronics within 3D structures is that recycling guidelines can be embedded within the product by integrating an RFID tag. When scanned on disposal, disassembly instructions, such as the precise location of surface mount components, can be obtained along with the material composition.
Sustainability Benefits of 3D Electronics
When evaluating the sustainability of competing manufacturing methodologies, it is important to consider their environmentally friendly impact across the entire life cycle, and to also consider secondary effects. It’s here that 3D electronics brings substantial sustainability benefits, primarily because integrating electronic and structural functionality enables a more compressed form factor as there is no need to incorporate a rigid PCB.
A small factor brings two main benefits, fewer materials are used, and the device is lighter. As a result, less energy is used to manufacture the materials, and shipping the device is more efficient.
Complete life cycle analysis (LCA) normally shows a substantial sustainability benefit for 3D electronics. Although the concerns around material separation are valid, it is made up for by the reduced size, weight, and material mix.
Recycling technologies such as depolymerization that facilitate material separation may become more utilized over time, resolving the main challenge.
The sustainability benefits of 3D electronics outweigh the downsides when the entire product life cycle is considered.
For more information, visit IDTechEx.com/3DElec.