What a Difference a Year Makes: Voxel8 and the 3D Printing Pioneering Spirit

Reading time ( words)

At CES in Las Vegas in January, Dan Feinberg and I met with Michael Bell, co-founder of 3D printing company Voxel8, to get an update on their developments of the past year, where he sees the company going in the future and whether rapid prototyping might be a valid application for their machines.

Last year, I-Connect007 covered Voxel8 as one of the pioneers in 3D printing of circuits. Judging by what they’ve accomplished since then, and by the samples they brought to CES, it looks like there's been some very significant progress.

As further background, the entire 3D Expo at CES has grown exponentially—it's clearly coming of age. While there was a huge number of basically Chinese ‘me too’ companies present, it surely means that leaders, like Voxel8, are clearly making progress. After all, copying is a great form of flattery.

algo1.jpgDan Feinberg: Michael, you've made great progress in the last year. As you know, we're believers in 3D printing as a major form of manufacturing in the future, particularly for electronics. What are you showing this year, and what has happened in the last year?

Michael Bell: If you take a look at standard circuit boards in cellphones today, you'll find that the circuit boards are not made of plastic. We've done a lot of work on developing the materials to support more advanced electronics. One of those has been epoxy material development. We have an epoxy that has chopped fibers in it, like carbon fiber, glass fibers, etc., which replicates the properties of materials like FR-4, so that you can have actual circuit boards with conductive ink.

We also have silicone materials that allow you to have different properties on your components. You can either have stretchable circuits like soft electronics, or you can have shells of electronics that have a softer feel to them. Imagine a hearing aid, where you really want to have a soft outer part, but then the inside will be solid, your components will be solid, and your conductors will be routed inside.

We've been doing a lot of materials development, and of course you now see the production-ready machines that we have, that are actually running and printing, and that look good. We're getting a lot of crowds around those.

Feinberg: You're also printing out real devices and real things, rather than just statues.

Bell: Last year we had the first 3D-printed quad-copter here that had all the electronics routed inside of it. This year we have a watch that has components inserted inside, like the LEDs, buttons, and a battery tray that pops in and out. It really shows the removal of a PCB that's essential to most electronics, and the distribution of those components throughout the body itself.

We also we have a bunch of antennas and demo prints that really show the capabilities of the machine as far as the trace width and the spirals. People always wonder how you're doing conductors through the vertical parts of the prints, so we have examples of that. And of course we have examples of the epoxies and other materials.


Feinberg: I was looking at your sample circuit board with the silver traces and it looks far more professional than what you were showing last year. Last year’s version looked like it worked, but this one is starting to look like a truly high-quality, industrial-grade circuit.

Bell: Exactly, and it's only getting better. Along the lines of the full product integration and development, we've been able to dial in the tolerances, the dispensing systems, and the system as a whole. While we had a similar silver material that we were using last year in an FDM printing process, we now have a significantly more improved one and the platform that it's being run on is made for production.

Feinberg: What are the lines and traces on that?

Bell: It’s a 250-micron trace width and a 800-micron pitch on the tightest ones.

Feinberg: Do you anticipate being able to go finer than that?

Bell: It's in the cards. We're starting with this. Frankly, the trace width on the silver is limited by the nozzle diameter, and you can get those nozzles down to 100 microns; however, it's limited by the plastic substrate and how smooth the plastic substrate is, which in FDM is never really that great. With some more materials like the epoxies, which print much better and smoother, we'll probably be able to go lower on the trace width of the silver, but that's the materials that we're working on integrating. The platform is going to stay the same, but we're going to improve the dispensing and the materials because all of those are upgradeable.

Feinberg: It's like any advancing technology or advancing process: It's all interdependent on advances in materials, equipment, knowledge and technique.

Bell: Exactly. We really have an integration problem here. We have hardware, software, and materials that all play into how well the print looks. The development in the last year has been getting those systems all together and working well.

Feinberg: When we come back and talk to you next year, how far along do you think you’ll be?

Bell: We'll definitely have an industrial platform or applications to show off next year. A platform that has high resolution, has more material dispensing capabilities, and has targeted uses for it, like hearing aids or cell phone antennas, or apparel like shoe insoles, etc.



Suggested Items

I-Connect007 Editor’s Choice: Five Must-Reads for the Week

12/03/2021 | Andy Shaughnessy, I-Connect007
It hardly feels like the end of 2021, but here we are, looking at a new year and IPC APEX EXPO and AltiumLive coming up in less than two months. If you don’t count days lost during the holidays, it’s more like one month before showtime. Hey, at least we have some live events to attend now. This week, we have some association and trade show news, as well as articles on data management and the diminished role of U.S. chip makers in the global electronics supply chain. We’re almost behind the eight-ball here, folks, and we can’t build chip factories overnight. Let’s get a move on!

Happy Thanksgiving From the I-Connect007 Team

11/25/2021 | I-Connect007
In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday is a celebration of gratitude and appreciation for the harvest and for the people close to us. Thankfulness, however, transcends just one day of official observance. The fourth Thursday of November is when the U.S. officially celebrates Thanksgiving Day and as we take time to observe this holiday, the I-Connect007 team wishes to offer our thanks to you, our global readers and contributors: designers, fabricators, engineers, assemblers, quality and process control gurus, chemists, physicists, supervisors, managers, entrepreneurs, business owners, standards writers, industry experts, and more. You breathe life into the vital, thriving, world-changing electronics industry. You are the real story.

I-Connect007 Editor’s Choice: Five Must-Reads for the Week

04/16/2021 | Nolan Johnson, I-Connect007
I’m sure it’s just me being hyperaware, but I can’t shake it: Mars is where it’s at right now. Is it just me, or do you get the same feeling from the news? There are the Mars rovers—three generations of them still rolling, now—and a drone helicopter winding up for a maiden flight any day now. But that’s not all. There’s SpaceX’s StarShip, rapid-prototyping its way into a manned flight to Mars. And NASA’s whole “return to the Moon” project is simply a shakedown for the U.S. government contractors’ Mars flight hardware, too.

Copyright © 2021 I-Connect007. All rights reserved.