3D circuit-board printer a smash hit on Kickstarter

A 3D printer that lays down circuitry for prototyping designs and creating one-off boards is approaching five times its initial $70,000 crowdsourcing goal.

A 3D printer that dispenses conducting ink to create circuit-completed boards has garnered nearly five times its $70,000 crowdsourcing goal.

The Voltera V-One 3D printer claims to be able to create complex printed circuit boards (PCBs) in minutes by dispensing layers of conductive ink and insulating ink. The machine can even pause while processors are inserted and then resume operations, dispensing a solder paste to attach the devices to the board.

With 22 days left in its fundraising goal, the Kickstarter project has already raised more than $330,000.

The Voltera V-One printer lays down a conductive ink to create the circuitry traces and then uses an insulating ink as a mask between layers. The printer is not meant to replace traditional mass manufactured PCBs, but is a prototyping tool that allows engineers to test designs or to manufacture limited runs.

The conductive ink can be laid down in traces as thin as .2 millimeters in width.

"How many times have you tossed out a board because you used the wrong footprint or because you forgot a pull-up resistor?" Waterloo, Canada-based Voltera stated on its Kickstarter page. "If you're anything like us ... more times than you'd like to admit. Now you can quickly test an idea without wasting money or two weeks of your time."

The printer only has one button and the conductive ink cartridges, which also contain the print nozzle, snap on and off the machine magnetically. To create a two-layer circuit board, after the first layer is printed and cured, a user then just needs to swap in the insulating ink cartridge.

The machine's software can guide users through each step in the PCB creation process, even handling circuitry file conversions, the project's developers stated.

Printable circuits aren't unique, but most machines have come from research projects and they are not as yet mainstream.

For example, Georgia Tech, the University of Tokyo and Microsoft Research have all created printable circuits over the past two years. One company, called Bare Conductive, has also been selling a graphite ink that can be used to print circuits.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee have been able to print inexpensive, flexible, disposable electronic sensors that can be used for a wide range of medical purposes, as well as an "electronic skin" that can act as a touchpad sensor on robotics.

Harvard University researchers last month also announced a 3D printer capable of printing both thermoplastics and highly conductive silver inks that allow electronic products to be created on one process.

The printer will be sold by Voxel8, a company co-founded by Jennifer Lewis, a professor at Harvard's Wyss School of Biologically Inspired Engineering.

Voxel8's 3D circuit printer starts at $8,500. The Voltera V-One is selling for as little as $1,500.

The first run of the Voltera V-One, which sold for $1,200, is expected next year. That batch is sold out. The second batch, selling for $1,500, is expected to ship in January  2016.

Voltera is estimating the cost of the conductive ink cartridge will in the $50 to $85 range, "but the solder paste and insulating ink will be much lower than that," it stated. The cartridges will hold two CCs (cubic centimeters) of ink.

Each printer will come with a cartridge of conductive ink, insulating ink, solder paste, solder wire, blank boards in a few sizes, a sample pack of template boards, and all the cables and tools you need to get started.

The machine is 15.4-in x 10.1-in x 8.2-in in size and weighs just 15.4 lbs. The print area is 5.5-in x 4-in in size.

The machine is compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. It connects to a computer via a USB cable.

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