Circuits on Demand
Dyson Award-winning Canadian 3D printer rapidly creates circuit boards.0
Necessity strikes again. It was 2012 when it became the mother of the Voltera V-One circuit board printer. At that point in time, University of Waterloo Mechatronics and Nanotechnology grads Alroy Almeida, Katarina Ilic, James Pickard and Jesus Zozaya were continually butting up against a problem, both in their working lives and with their own hobby projects.
“We were excited to see all the attention 3D printing and other rapid prototyping techniques were getting,” says Almeida, “but noticed a distinct lack of tools for electronics development, for anything from smart phones to biomedical devices. That’s when we set out to create one ourselves, just as a fun project. But it quickly grew into a business as we got interest from our peers and others in the field.” By 2013, they had founded Voltera, which now has bases in Kitchener, Ontario and Shenzhen, China.
The laptop-sized Voltera V-One uses different inks, conductive and insulating, to rapidly create two-layer circuit boards. It also dispenses solder paste so that components can be added to the board. Users simply import 2D Gerber format files into Voltera’s software, place a blank FR4 board on the print bed and press print.
The V-One’s software automatically converts vias in the design to bridges and sandwiches a layer of insulating ink between layers of conductive inks to create two-layer boards. To make a small production run, no stencil is needed. Users only need swap in the solder paste print head, place components and let the soldering begin. But getting to this commercialized finished product was far from easy.
“When we first began the company, we spoke to experts in the conductive ink industry and they informed us that what we were trying to build was impossible,” Almeida says. “Instead of backing down, we rose to meet the challenge and put all our effort into the chemical formulation of the inks.”
They tried several different styles of print heads as they came to better understand the trade-offs between power requirements, control circuitry and software and fluid mechanics of the inks.
During this early phase, the electro-mechanical design changed frequently. In those early days, Almeida, Ilic, Pickard and Zozaya had a very limited budget. They built one experimental set-up after another by hand for a fraction of the cost of purchasing proper equipment.
“Thankfully, we were supported by grants from the Canadian government and avoided the need for outside investment,” Almeida explains. “Once we reached a point where we were confident in our ability to get the chemistry to reach the benchmarks we had set for ourselves, we began to focus more on the product design. We knew we wanted to build machinery that people would be proud to have on their workbench. This was in stark contrast to the majority of equipment we’ve used in the past, which only left us frustrated and longing for intuitive user interfaces and simple workflows.”
The team chose a local industrial design firm to help evaluate a few design directions. Almeida says that, during that process, driving factors included expected costs of materials and assembly, simplicity for the user, robustness for regular use, critical materials and manufacturing processes.
“Several interesting but complex design features were eliminated,” he adds, “including a transparent heat shield and automated print head switching.” Once the team had a design nailed down, they began extensive prototyping. They moved things to China to continue prototyping and also to begin building a supply chain. In 2015, they returned to Canada with a functional unit that they were able to take to trade shows and officially launch.
Product refinements continued in 2015. The V-One has been tweaked on many fronts, to improve safety and user experience and to reduce cost and assembly time. These changes, Almeida says, were a result of usability tests with other product designers and prospective customers. Factory feedback was also important.
“The initial control software and path planning algorithms had been a patched-together system that allowed us to experiment rapidly,” he notes. “After the design was finalized, the software was rebuilt from scratch. It followed the same design principles as the product itself. We focused on guided walkthroughs and a clean interface that only presented options when they were truly required. Once again, usability tests proved or disproved a lot of our assumptions and led to a tool that was more usable by a varied audience.”
The Voltera staff now stands at eleven. “We still maintain a fairly flat organization with each person filling multiple roles and often bringing multi-disciplinary skills to the table,” says Almeida. “Voltera has over 300 units ordered right now from about 40 countries, and its customers span all walks of life, from businesses of all sizes and academic institutions to hobbyists as well. The primary market is North America, but we see demand from Europe, Australia and a few Asian countries as well.”
The four Voltera founders are the proud winner of the 2015 Dyson award (and their Kickstarter campaign has topped the $500,000 mark). “We really admire the quality and aesthetic that the Dyson engineers imbue into their products,” Almeida says. “In many ways, we’ve always aimed to do the same, and that’s a big reason why this award means so much to us. James Dyson is a fantastic engineer and a big reason behind why Dyson does build their products the amazing way they do. His support brings a lot of validation to Voltera and reminded us that we are truly solving a big problem that hardware developers face on a regular basis.”