A Printer For Circuit Boards

One of ten brilliant innovations from our 2015 Invention Awards

Circuit Board Printer

Circuit Board Printer

One print head deposits a custom-formulated, highly conductive silver nanoparticle paste. Another extrudes insulating ink to form layers of circuitry without risking electrical shorts. Solder paste from a third print head can attach components, such as resistors or microcontrollers, to the board.Courtesy Voltera

While studying mechatronics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Alroy Almeida, Jesus Zozaya, and James Pickard became frustrated by the inefficiency of designing circuit boards. “We’d spend a couple hundred dollars to get prototypes made at a factory and wait a few weeks, and they would come in and be wrong,” Almeida says. After they revamped the design, the agonizing process would begin again, sometimes through multiple prototypes.

Meanwhile, they watched as 3D printers rapidly prototyped other kinds of products. An inkjet printer that deposited circuits would speed up electronics design--but conductive material was too thick to squeeze through existing print heads. So when the friends graduated in 2013, they teamed up with nanoscientist Katarina Ilic to build their own device. Two years of R&D later, the team is preparing to ship the V-One to Kickstarter backers.

V-One’s swappable print heads lay down conductive circuits on fiberglass boards. By using its solder function to attach components, users can even produce small batches of their devices. Almeida hopes the printer will usher in a new generation of engineers. “This can help people understand that electronics don’t need to be difficult.”

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Popular Science. For more extraordinary innovations and tips on how to be an inventor, click through the rest of our Invention Awards feature.