In designing and prototyping electronic circuit boards there is no quick or simple way to produce results. Many hours of design and development need to be expended on prototype layouts along with masking, etching, and populating those boards with components. Even after all of this, just one simple layout mistake can ruin all of your work and you have to go through the entire process again. The Voltera V-One aims to change all of that with the promise of a one button, conductive ink printing system solely designed to reduce the effort in rapid, small run hardware prototyping.
Modern technology allows the likes of software development, 3D printing, and CNC milling to produce rapid prototypes of all sorts of systems and objects. However, until now, there has been no quick and inexpensive way to simply push a button to see if an electronic circuit idea works. The team at Voltera claims that this is what the V-One is all about: a simply operated system that produces prototype circuit boards in fewer steps, at lower-cost, and with all of the ease and convenience of other modern-day rapid prototyping systems.
According to the team, the Voltera V-One is the first conductive ink printer that goes further than simply printing single layer circuits on paper like some other printers. The V-One is also claimed capable of printing electrically-separated two layer circuits onto industry standard circuit board substrate, FR4 (Flame Retardant fiber glass epoxy), which, according to its makers, is a first in a machine of this size and price, too.
In detail, the team says that prototyping is achieved by putting a blank board or template board on the print platform, importing the appropriate design files, and then hitting the print button. Of course, it is never quite that simple with anything, and the creators add the disclaimer that print time is subject to change with an increase in dimensions or intricacy of the selected design.
Given this, it is claimed that a relatively standard layout – such as that of an Arduino board – should print in around 15 to 20 minutes. Add to this 30 minutes for the ink to dry, and you have a total time from pushing the print button to finished prototype circuit board of less than an hour.
The two layer circuit printing that's one of the claimed points of difference for this printer is a little more complex, though not greatly so. It involves swapping out the magnetically-attached print head that supplies the conductive ink, for another head that dispenses a liquid insulating substance. Then, when print is once more selected, the onboard software works out where the circuit tracks from each of the layers will overlap, and then applies a mask in those places using the insulating substance. To complete the last layer, the conductive ink head is then reattached and the software finishes applying the tracks of conductive ink.
One other important differentiation point for the V-One is that it's also designed to automatically lay down solder paste on the pads to which components are attached and then solidify that paste by baking the board. This feature alone should save a hardware developer a bit of money by not having to pay to have boards populated with components, and many hours of downtime were the boards to be shipped out to have this work done.
It does not, however, go the extra step of picking and placing components like the Squink system previously described in Gizmag. But given that it is also aimed squarely at the designer and prototyper – and is not intended to completely replace the human in the process – this is hardly a negative aspect.
As for the design software itself, the popularity of the Gerber file format in many circuit design tools has prompted the V-One design team to provide for the input of these files to the Voltera system. The team hopes to also support other flavors of this software, including CadSoft EAGLE, Altium CircuitMaker, Upverter, and KiCad by the time the V-One hits the market.
To get it to that market, the Voltera V-One has been launched on Kickstarter, where the developers hope to gather enough backing to support them through the next phases of developing and manufacturing the unit.
In this vein, the Voltera team is offering the V-One for a special single-unit pledge of US$1,499. All going to plan, the creators hope to ship the first early bird run in September 2015, followed by another early bird shipment in January 2016.
As an added inducement, the creators have also decided not just to include simple FR4 blank boards to print on, but have also added the more useful templates for the common Arduino Uno and Mega development boards as well. These will be shipped pre-drilled and pre-cut. The team also hopes to produce templates for Raspberry Pi, Beagle Bone, Spark Core or other standards, depending on customer response to their Kickstarter campaign.
The team's pitch video can be seen below.