The 3D printers of today can produce objects that may be quite intricate in shape but, by and large, these objects are still made solely of "dumb" plastic. This may be about to change thanks to the Voxel8, a printer presented at CES that makes it much easier to blend plastic, conductive ink and other electronic components in the same object to manufacture highly customizable devices, such as your very own quadcopter.
Special conductive inks and the right kind of printers already make it possible to build simple parts with embedded electronics. The problem with current conductive inks, however, is that they’re not very conductive at all: they’re made using carbon particles, which are mediocre conductors at best and are only really good for a limited scope of simple, low-power applications.
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Voxel8, a Harvard spin-off founded by professor Jennifer Lewis, has designed a new ink that replaces carbon with highly conductive silver particles and is reportedly five thousand times more conductive, making it ideal for carrying higher currents, such as those required by small electric motors and other actuators.
The ink is specifically designed so it can be deposited by a 250 micron nozzle, dry in just five minutes at room temperature and used to reliably interconnect TQFP integrated circuits. The idea is that this new ink will enable users to easily wire together chips and other electronic components within their 3D-printed objects, allowing a degree of design freedom that is simply not possible through standard methods of manufacturing.
Using interchangeable cartridges, the Voxel8 prints out objects in either PLA plastic or conductive silver ink. Thanks to its unique software (which was specifically developed by CAD software giant Autodesk and is hosted in the cloud), the printing can also pause at predetermined points so that users can manually insert the components that will be embedded in their 3D-printed objects.
As printers go, this one appears to be on the higher end of the spectrum with features including a 4.3-inch touchscreen, USB and Wi-Fi connectivity, and a kinematically coupled bed that uses magnets to ensure high-precision printing even after the various components are inserted manually. The XY resolution is 15 microns, layer resolution is 200 microns, and the device can reportedly print objects up to 4 x 6 x 4 inches (10 x 15 x 10 cm) in size.
The only two printing materials currently supported are standard PLA plastic and the silver conductive ink, but the startup has said users will be able to upgrade their printer in the future as more functional and matrix materials are released.
Voxel8 printers are set to begin shipping late this year. The US$8,999 standard price tag includes two PLA filament spools and five conductive ink cartridges. Should you choose to pre-order, which entails a $500 deposit, you’ll get double the printing materials.
The video below demonstrates what the printer can do, including printing a working quadcopter.