Getting circuit boards manufactured is often time consuming and incredibly expensive depending on what is being manufactured. Suffice it to say, it's a hassle and wholly inefficient when it comes to rapid prototyping. Thanks to 3D printers, more users can crank out parts quickly and on demand but are stuck in the mud when it comes to getting the internal circuitry incorporated into their projects.
The term rapid prototyping becomes mediocre prototyping when it hits the circuitry snag; however, BotFactory has a solution to that problem with its novel Squink, the personal electronic circuit board factory. Yes, that's actually the name they gave their circuit board printer but don't let the name fool you, the printer is incredibly efficient, versatile, and dirt-cheap when it comes to the actual print.
Squink uses conductive ink and assembles a circuit on the fly -- cheaply.
Squink uses inkjet printing technology, but instead of using standard ink, the printer uses conductive inks to print circuits. Think of the printer as a stepping stone to conventional manufacturing as the printer is intended as a tool to test out users' ideas. Will the circuit design work in a certain configuration? Will it be able to be integrated into project designs seamlessly? Those are just a couple of problems the printer is designed to tackle on the spot, as it is capable of assembling the circuit in only a few minutes on both rigid and flexible materials.
Printing can be done on paper, plastics, and even glass, depending on the project, with no soldering needed. Instead, the printer uses globs of conductive glue for connection points and uses a PnP (Pick and Place) attachment to place components onto those connection points. There are three attachment heads that can be swapped out, including one for the conductive ink, one for the conductive glue, and the last for placing the components onto the circuit.
The printer's optical recognition software interprets the CAD file orientation of the components and rotates them into the correct angle before placing. Squink is designed to function in tandem with a PC and relies on GERBER files for the printing process and centroid files for the PnP process, however users can use PNG, JPG, and BMP files for more artistic creations. The printer is connected through a Web-based interface and users simply drag and drop their image files to get the ball rolling. They can watch an animated schematic of their designs being printed. The best part is that it doesn't cost an arm and a leg to print the designs, as the cost of the conductive ink and glue average around $5 for a 4-inch x 4-inch circuit.
Of course, the substrate isn't factored in -- paper and glass can be used without mortgaging your home. To put that into perspective, it should cost around $125 for the ink and $125 for the glue to manufacture 50 circuit boards at the size mentioned above. BotFactory is currently crowd-funding Squink on Kickstarter.