Will you print your next PC? A reality check on 3D-printed electronics

Hidden among the many leaps forward in wearables and monitors at CES was a smaller, more impressive advancement: a printer from start-up company Voxel8 that can actually print circuitry.

I’ve been soaking up articles on this new printer since CES, and it’s difficult not to become excited with speculation of where this technology could go. Printable cell phones! Modular computers! The future! It’s easy to be carried away by the possibilities.

In an attempt to offer a reality check I’ve rounded up what’s possible now, where the technology might be heading, and what’s just pure speculation.

What makes these new printers different?

Up until now, 3D printing has been relegated to solid, plastic objects. The usual technique, known as “additive manufacturing,” creates an item by depositing layers of PLA (polylactic acid) on top of one another.

Rather than spending a couple of days working on a prototype, you’ll be able to print one off in about one hour.

Voxel8’s new device prints using the same PLA material but has a second pneumatic nozzle that can dispense a special type of silver ink. Able to dry at room temperature in about five minutes, the ink is incredibly conductive (over 5,000 times more than its current carbon counterparts), which is what allows it to replace the hand-applied solder or filaments that you see today.

Some of the more pedestrian details include a 4.3-inch touchscreen, Wi-Fi connectivity, and five cartridges of Voxel8’s custom, silver ink. Its price tag is a little more attention-grabbing, running just shy of nine grand ($8,999); which places it out of the “personal hobbyist” sector for now.

What’s possible now

One of the devices Voxel8 showed CES as a “proof of concept” was a 3D printed quad-copter drone. Built as one solid enclosed unit, it was a hit at the show among hobbyists and 3D printing aficionados. But even more interesting developments were happening at a slightly larger scale.

Voxel8
Voxel8 3D printed quadcopter

After winning $50,000 as contestants in the 2014 MassChallenge (the world’s largest start-up accelerator), Voxel8’s technology caught the attention of the Mitre Corporation, which oversees multiple federally funded research projects.

One of Mitre’s projects was the creation of array antennas for the U.S. government. Having run into challenges with traditional manufacturing methods, Voxel8’s technology looked like it could provide a solution. Jamie Hood, a mechanical engineer at Mitre, states “the capabilities Voxel8 provides are nonexistent on the market today.” That might mean little to consumers, but it’s a sign that Voxel8’s technology is more than just a cutting-edge curiosity.

This new style of printing is also receiving software support from Autodesk, one of the leaders in 3D printing software. Project Wire, specifically made for Voxel8, will let users work with CAD (computer-aided design) files when designing their new devices. The custom software will streamline the creation process, helping users share and iterate on design files. The fact that Project Wire is open-source means the user community will be able to add features and toolsets as needed, making it a particularly robust tool.

Plans for the future

Dr. Jennifer Lewis, a Harvard professor and one of the cofounders of Voxel8, has experience with an array of 3D printing materials. From extremely stiff composite material to stretchable sensors, Lewis believes that 3D printing is going to revolutionize manufacturing as we know it.

In an interview with her alma mater, Lewis said, “rather than shipping components, you are going to be shipping CAD files and then you’re going to have local centers of manufacturing excellence, where these CAD files are just ported and directly products come out.”

It’s easy to see the potential benefit of creating odd-sized circuitry for wearables.

This is especially beneficial for devices that rely on custom form-factors. It’s easy to see the potential benefit of creating odd-sized circuitry for wearables.

Daniel Oliver, Voxel8’s other cofounder, points out that another draw for 3D designers is efficiency. “People will also be able to start creating circuits on their desks. So, if you wanted to test out a circuit design, you could print out a circuit board directly on your desk.”

Rather than spending a couple of days working on a handmade prototype, you’ll be able to print one off in about one hour. And without the restriction of standardized circuit boards, designers are free to rethink the form, factor and geometry of their creations.

The distant horizon

Oliver sums up Voxel8’s immediate goal within the industry: “For 3D printing to push the limits of what’s done now, it has to solve key issues that current manufacturing technologies don’t.” The company hopes to expand its device’s abilities to include printing resistors, stretchable electronics, and even lithium-ion batteries. Those are big promises, though, and Voxel8 wants to focus on understanding what industries are most receptive to 3D printing for now.

NASA sent up its first 3D printer to the International Space Station this September, and its been receiving some pretty heavy use. It’s difficult not to speculate what the engineers at NASA could get up to with the ability to print items outside of inert plastic objects. The thought of having CAD files to create replacement parts in space, rather than rocketing up spare parts, could potentially have a huge impact on cost-savings in the burgeoning industry of private space travel.

Reality check

While all these developments are exciting, its important to remember all new technology comes with growing pains. One issue is that the necessary silver conductive ink is only available through Voxel8, meaning that while you’ll be free to create whatever you’d like, you’ll also be tethered to one company for all your supplies. That’s the business model, of course, but it could be a problem if Voxel8 ever goes under or if builders want access to alternative materials that the company doesn’t sell.

And while you’ll be able to pause the job mid-print to insert more complicated circuits or wiring of your own design, the device is currently limited to printing basic conductors. That means no integrated electrical circuits, and many of Voxel8’s users will be stuck inserting more complicated circuitry manually, just like the days of old.

Voxel8 has a lot of hype to live up to, and odds are its only going to increase, as these printers won’t be shipping until the end of the year. But Lewis and company are off to a good start, and with any luck the price the expensive initial model will be followed by a more affordable consumer version. I’m still holding out hope for that self-printed computer, one day.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: camera with A.I. director, robot arm assistant

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

3D printers are finally affordable. Here are the best models under $500

3D printer prices have dropped dramatically over the past few years, but just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s worth buying. Here, we’ve rounded up all the cheap 3D printers that are actually worth spending your money on.
Mobile

Verizon’s deal could get you a free iPhone XR — but there’s some fine print

Verizon launched a new deal for its smartphones aimed at encouraging customers to open a new line. If you're willing and you want two new phones, you could get a free Samsung Galaxy S9, iPhone XR, or Pixel 3.
Computing

Printing to PDF in Windows is easy, no matter which method you use

Microsoft's latest operating system makes it easier than ever to print to PDF in Windows, but there are alternative methods for doing so, even if you want to forgo Adobe Acrobat. Here's how.
Computing

It's not all free money. Here's what to know before you try to mine Bitcoin

Mining Bitcoin today is harder than it used to be, but if you have enough time, money, and cheap electricity, you can still turn a profit. Here's how to get started mining Bitcoin at home and in the cloud.
Computing

Need a free alternative to Adobe Illustrator? Here are our favorites

Photoshop and other commercial tools can be expensive, but drawing software doesn't need to be. This list of the best free drawing software is just as powerful as some of the more expensive offerings.
Computing

Want a Dell laptop with an RTX 2060? Cross the new XPS 15 off your list

The next iteration of Dell's XPS 15 laptop won't come with an option for an RTX 2060, according to Alienware's Frank Azor. You could always opt for a new Alienware m15 or m17 instead.
Computing

What is fixed wireless 5G? Here’s everything you need to know

Here's fixed wireless 5G explained! Learn what you need to know about this effective new wireless technology, when it's available, how much it costs, and more. If you're thinking about 5G, this guide can help!
Computing

Fix those internet dead zones by turning an old router into a Wi-Fi repeater

Is there a Wi-Fi dead zone in your home or office? A Wi-Fi repeater can help. Don't buy a new one, though. Here is how to extend Wi-Fi range with another router you have lying around.
Computing

Heal your wrist aches and pains with one of these top ergonomic mice

If you have a growing ache in your wrist, it might be worth considering ergonomic mice alternatives. But which is the best ergonomic mouse for you? One of these could be the ticket to the right purchase for you.
Gaming

These are the best indie games you can get on PC right now

Though many indie games now come to consoles as well, there's still a much larger selection on PC. With that in mind, we've created a list of the best indie games for PC, with an emphasis on games that are only available on PC.
Apple

Want a MacBook that will last all day on a single charge? Check these models out

Battery life is one of the most important factors in buying any laptop, especially MacBooks. Their battery life is typically average, but there are some standouts. Knowing which MacBook has the best battery life can be rather useful.
Computing

Always have way too many tabs open? Google Chrome might finally help

Google is one step closer to bringing tab groups to its Chrome browser. The feature is now available in Google's Chrome Canady build with an early implementation that can be enabled through its flag system.
Mobile

Here's how to convert a Kindle book to PDF using your desktop or the web

Amazon's Kindle is one of the best ebook readers on the market, but it doesn't make viewing proprietary files on other platforms any easier. Here's how to convert a Kindle book to PDF using either desktop or web-based applications.