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 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.

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