At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, a start-up named Voxel8 debuted the world's first 3D electronics printer. The device, which shares the company's name, can 3D-print objects that feature the ability to embed electronic components and can 3D-print conductive ink -- and sits comfortably on a desk.
As a demonstration of its technology, Voxel8 showed off a 3D-printed quadcopter that embedded an aftermarket circuit board directly into the copter's shell, which the company connected to the motors with its silver-based 3D-printed conductive ink.
When the Voxel8 begins shipping later this year, it'll usher in a new era of product design that emphasizes designing electronics to fit a product, rather than designing products around their requisite electronics. Longer term, the design and manufacturing implications could be staggering.
Digging into the details
Voxel8's developer kit starts at $8,499 and enables engineers and product designers to 3D-print, in PLA plastic and conductive ink, objects as large as 4 x 6 x 4 inches. Also included in the price is access to Autodesk's (NASDAQ:ADSK) upcoming Project Wire, a first-of-its-kind software suite that allows users to place components, route wires, and output multi-material 3D-printing data to the Voxel8. The video below provides an excellent overview of how the Voxel8 creates a compelling platform for 3D printed electronics:
Compared to other conductive inks on the market aimed at 3D printing, Voxel8's ink is made with silver particles, a material that has the highest known conductivity and that Voxel8 claims is 5,000 times more conductive than the competing conductive pastes and filaments available to 3D printing users.
Not a new concept
Although conductive inks aren't a new concept, having been around for 15 or 20 years commercially, combining the ability to 3D-print objects with the placement of conductive inks makes the Voxel8 groundbreaking. In terms of possibilities, reinventing the way products featuring embedded electronics are designed could lead to creating fundamentally better products.
For instance, General Electric (NYSE:GE) has been exploring ways to use conductive inks to act as sensors embedded within components that operate in harsh environments, such as jet engines, with the goal of making them smarter. In the video below from last April, I had the opportunity to speak with GE's Christine Furstoss about conductive inks, which she refers to as "direct write," or "3D inking."
But Voxel8 is private. Why should investors care?
Voxel8 was founded by Harvard professor Jennifer Lewis, who has extensive experience with material science, electronics, and 3D printing. The company also recently secured an investment from Braemar Energy Ventures, likely giving it enough resources to continue developing its 3D printing electronics platform and to introduce new materials. Considering its partnership with Autodesk could also be viewed as an endorsement, Voxel8 appears to taking the right actions to become a formidable competitor in the 3D printing industry.
Granted, there's a high possibility that Voxel8 won't be the only company in the marketplace offering 3D printers that can print with conductive inks. 3D Systems has highlighted on numerous occasions that its "racetrack" high-speed 3D printing platform, which is expected to be introduced sometime later this year, will feature the ability to produce components that have conductive properties.
Ultimately, what makes 3D printing such a compelling technology is its ability to manufacture products that couldn't otherwise be made with traditional processes. Throw in the capability of embedding electronics that the Voxel8 offers, and the 3D printing industry's prospects of having a greater influence in the manufacturing world increases significantly. Although the Voxel8 may seem rudimentary today in terms of its capabilities, 3D-printed electronics are likely to become a whole different animal five, 10, or 20 years from now.