The development of 3D printer technology has been rapidly accelerating, boosted in a large part to the open source community and world-wide sharing of information. There are now literally dozens of brands of 3D printers on the market at all price points, but Buzz Technology Limited, out of London, is looking to stand out from the crowd with its Industrial Revolution III printer (or IR3 for short) that can embed wiring within plastic components using conductive material.

There are printers that print food, printers that use lasers, printers that sinter metal, and printers that make full color objects. Adding to the expanding array of 3D printer capabilities, the IR3 can deposit material to make plastic objects – like other 3D printers – and lay down conductive pathways using other materials. But it can then stick electronic components into the assembly to make a working product. In the example on its Kickstarter page, the printer is used to fabricate, wire and assemble a small radio-control car. The trick here is the ability of the printer to "pick and place" objects into the assembly and leads to the company calling the IR3, "the world's first product assembling 3D printer."

However, there are several caveats to this ability – the part must fit into a special bin on the machine, it must have a steel plate that the electromagnet on the print head can grab onto, and it must have special spring loaded connections that mate to the printed conductive material in the plastic assembly the rest of the printer is making.

Right now, the conductive material being used is a special plastic that comes out of the extruder just like a normal 3D printer material. The material that is available is not all that electrically conductive, but Buzz Technology says, "Filament technologies are evolving fast. When we first printed out the car shown in the video and GIFs, we found the resistance of the conductive filaments to be very high – in fact, we achieved much better results with layered paint. Much improved filaments have only just come onto the market which we are shortly going to try out."

Another interesting feature of the IR3 is that it is designed to be mounted on the wall and to fold flat when not in use. The sides and bottom of the box fold in and the 3D gantry mechanism lays flat. The whole assembly folds more or less flat to the wall, which is certainly different.

The birth of the IR3

The gestation of the IR3 is as interesting as this strange flat-folding 3D printer/assembly combination. The team at Buzz Technology, led by Senake Atureliya, came out of pick-and-place machinery design for the textile, plumbing and food industries. They understand that installing small items – think of tiny resistors or LED’s – would be very difficult, so they concentrated on pre-made assemblies – circuit cards, battery holders, motors, wheels – that would be inserted into plastic parts, just like how a toy might be assembled in a factory.

The original idea from Buzz Technology was even more ambitious at first. They created what they called the Octopus Family Center, a washing machine-sized device that combined a food preparation station (food processor), heating elements for cooking, a food-safe 3D printer, and a washing machine to clean everything afterwards. They also created a second-generation 3D printer that had gimbals to print in any direction – not just in flat planes. They concluded the gimbaled printer was not worth the effort involved, so the third-generation device is this more stripped down IR3.

Futureproof printing?

Buzz Technology also claims that the IR3 is "futureproof". We interviewed Atureliya and asked him what he meant by that.

"3D printing is such a fast moving technology so it seems crazy to us to offer a machine that can't be upgraded," Atureliya told us. "We have two machines that are now worth a fraction of the price that we paid for them. To make the machine that we are offering on this Kickstarter – the 'Industrial Revolution III Developer Edition' – upgradeable by both most DIYers and makers, we have done the following:

  • used a casing material that enables additional components to be added without drilling - this really encourages experimentation.
  • enabled the XY platform to be used for swarming microbots – ready for when we launch those
  • built in swap-in-swap-out print heads.
  • allowed room for the clay/paste/food extrusion and other options that we have in the pipeline.
  • ordered potential retrofit items such as the UV printing pens.
  • announced our Fair Source solution to encourage both open and closed source third parties to work with us to come up with a best-of-breed solution.

"Our machine like all others will eventually be obsolete, but especially with the offer to help our backers become next-generation 3D printable product designers, we hope that they will make back all the money they spent and more by the time that happens."

We asked Atureliya specifically about the "swarming microbots" concept, and he explained that microbots (think small movable robot arms with grippers) would be attached to the print head via magnets and be able to move around on the print head to enable various functions – placing components, or using different materials such as UV cured resins in the construction. He said this concept requires further development and is dependent upon receiving additional funding.

We have reported previously on other similar machines. The Voltera V-1 could print circuit cards on standard fiberglass material, and the BotFactory Squink could lay down conductive paths and pick-and-place components into circuits on paper. Meanwhile, the Voxel 8 used conductive inks and PLA plastic, but needed the user to manually insert electronic components into the assembly.

It remains to be seen if IR3 can find an audience, but Buzz Technology seems to be marketing its device as a service to enable low volume or customized manufacturing rather than being a consumer device. At the time of publication, the company's Kickstarter campaign has raised just over £3,000 (approx. US$5,000) out of a modest £50,000 (approx. US$76,500 goal with eight days left to run. The minimum pledge for a an IR3 is £3,350 (approx. US$5,150), with deliveries slated to begin in October of this year if all goes as planned.

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