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.
Dan 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.