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 conductive ink as well as objects that feature the ability to embed electronic components -- and it sits comfortably on a desk. It holds the potential to revolutionize the way electronics are designed and made, and could be disruptive to other 3D printing companies.
During the recently held Inside 3D Printing Conference in New York City, 3D printing specialist Steve Heller had the opportunity to interview Dan Oliver, co-founder of Voxel8.
In the following video, the pair discuss the motivation behind co-founding Voxel8, how its technology works, the design implications, the value and future of 3D-printed electronics, proof of concepts, and the interplay between software and hardware in this new and exciting world.
A full transcript follows the video.
Steve Heller: Hey, Fools, Steve Heller here. I'm joined today with Dan Oliver. He is the co-founder of Voxel8, a very interesting up-and-coming 3D-printed electronics platform is what they've developed, out of a Harvard lab for material sciences. I'll let him do all the technical talking here.
Thank you for being here today, Dan, I really appreciate it. Let's just get right into it. What motivated you to co-found Voxel8?
Dan Oliver: I actually graduated from Harvard Business School and received a fellowship to try to commercialize the technology out of one of the labs around Harvard. Jennifer Lewis [Voxel8's founder] had an amazing [3D printing] technology and was already starting to commercialize her technology, and had a number of really awesome Ph.D. students that we actually co-founded the company with.
We were really excited to bring a new dimension to 3D printing, allowing these novel [unique] materials to push the limits of functionality that 3D printing could have. We're trying to get past shapes, and really get toward adding embedded electronics and things like that.
Heller: Can you walk me through how this technology actually works on a high level?
Oliver: Yes. Effectively, we have a number of different materials that we're able to co-print together.
The idea is that you can lay down a layer of something like a plastic... if you look at the bottom of this, this is all plastic PLA. You can leave a little channel, and then we come back through with another material and fill in that channel.
In this case, it's a highly conductive ink that cures at room temperature, so it's a low-cure temperature conductive ink. What this allows us to do is effectively create electrical interconnections between electrical components, that we can then embed inside.
This is actually a half-printed quadcopter. What we've done here is embedded an entire PCB [printed circuit] board, and then run connective traces from the pads on the PCB board, out to the motor connections that we'll stuff in later.
You can start adding in electrical components and start adding to the functionality of the part you're printing, so you don't just have a figurine or a statue; you have a fully functioning quadcopter coming off your device.
Heller: It's not necessarily like you're 3D printing circuit boards with semiconductors on it. It's more that you're creating the pathways so that channels can be embedded into the part. What does that do from the design perspective?
Oliver: We're not really doing semiconductor processes with this.
We figured semiconductors are really great at making really small, very useful components that have a lot of power. But if we can break those interconnections between all the components on your circuit board, it really frees up the geometry you're able to create.
Imagine trying to get that typical rectangular circuit board into smaller and smaller places, and in more and more integrated devices.
Think about a hearing aid, something like that, where you need a large number of electronics in a really small area. Having that freedom of geometry really allows you to stuff that volume full of electronics and get the most processing power and electronics in that small area that you can.
Heller: Let's talk about why 3D-printed electronics. Let's get into that a little bit more, philosophically speaking.
Oliver: I see a movement in electronics having to become more seamless and more integrated into our everyday lives.
Whether that's the Internet of Things movement, where everything needs a sensor, an antenna, and a power source, effectively, to gather all this data, or it's the mobile movement where we need computing on our bodies at all times, whether it's the next-generation wearable or it's your smartphone, I see electronics really needing to get more and more integrated into our everyday lives.
Effectively, the way that's going to be done is by the geometry of the electronics that we create being able to be flexible. There's no better technology out there for making crazy [complex] geometries than 3D printing.
Heller: Today we're talking about laying conductive ink. Where do you think this technology is going in the future?
Oliver: We're super-excited! We launched out of a material science lab. Professor Jennifer Lewis is our CEO and inventor of this technology. She's done so many amazing things that we want to work on. She's 3D-printed lithium-ion batteries, she's done high-strength composites and things like that.
We're really excited about combining a number of different materials together and pulling basically whatever you want off the printer: a fully functioning electronic device, directly off your printer, that has seven, eight, nine -- who knows how many -- different materials on that.
If you really think about your high-value devices that you play with on a day-to-day level, they're not [made from a] single material. They're a number of different materials working in concert, including electronic components and things like that.
This ability to bring a whole host of materials together, print them together, just really opens up the design space and the possibilities we should be able to create.
Heller: That's very interesting. You've brought some demonstrations with you today. I know you talked a little bit about this quadcopter. I wanted you to touch on that, and I want to see some of the other cool things you've got here.
Oliver: This is the half-finished quadcopter. If you go to our website, Voxel8.co, you can see the fully functioning quadcopter flying. Actually we're at a conference today and my buddy Travis, another co-founder, will be flying it at the talk.
I've got a couple other things here.
This is actually a 3D circuit board that we printed in the shape of our logo. What's cool about this is, a typical circuit board you basically have to route things on a single plane. If you start moving to other planes it really ups the expensiveness and the complexity of the circuit board you're creating.
But since we've made this additively [with 3D printing], effectively layer by layer, creating it like that, it makes it really easy for us to route in three dimensions inside this.
If you hold this up to the light, you can see a number of different traces printed inside of this thing. That's really interesting, because that's going to breaking those bonds between electrical components and getting electronics seamlessly integrated wherever you want.
Imagine you have a sensor, and you need an antenna and a small electronics package next to it. Instead of having to be that square, flat circuit board, now imagine warping, twisting, folding that over on itself into any shape you want. This is what this [logo] represents.
The other thing I brought here is an antenna we printed out. This is a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi antenna we were able to print out with just PLA and our proprietary conductive ink.
This is a 2D design that we did as a proof of concept, but what we're really interested in is when we allow antenna designers to use this third dimension. What kind of powerful, high-bandwidth antennas would they be able to create if they were able to design and create antennas in three dimensions instead of just two?
Heller: How does that interface with electronics? There's a chip that sends some power to this antenna, then the antenna sends out the signal? Is that how it works?
Oliver: Similar to how you would interface this antenna to any other electronics package -- effectively, you would be wired up together. Antennas are a little finicky depending on the frequency level, what that connection is.
We're learning lots about antennas; I'm seeing it on a day-to-day basis here, but effectively it would be wired up similar to any other antenna. This would be a stand-alone component we could make, or if we were creating a whole device this is something we could print directly in, and then just print our conductive traces off and wire it back up into the digital circuit.
Heller: How does software mature to actually work with a platform like this?
Oliver: That's such an important question. We've been lucky enough -- one, we have a great software team. Jack Minardi is a co-founder of the company and a great software guy, and we have a great software team.
But the other thing we've been really fortunate about is actually Autodesk approached us about how they could help support our project. We basically told them, "There's not really a CAD package out there that allows you to do 3D routing of electronics."
They effectively embedded a software designer inside of our team to come up with a new design tool that allows you to import a 3D model, drag and drop electrical components in or on that 3D model, and then wire them up in three dimensions.
They basically created a whole new tool, called Project Wire, that's going to be available in a couple of months here. They've been really, really helpful.
But it's important to note that while we really pride ourselves on these material innovations, both the software and the hardware have to be right there, supporting it, to really fulfill its full promise.
Heller: Making the software communicate with the hardware so it knows to lay down some silver conductive ink and some PLA or ABS plastic next to it, that's pretty seamless at this point?
Oliver: It's getting there. One of the great things about having the Autodesk software engineer on our team is on a day-to-day basis, we're using the software. Full disclosure, Project Wire works with our Slicer pipeline, our tool path planning pipeline, so we've had a lot of discussions about where that fence needs to be, how we need to send information back and forth over that fence.
Effectively, they tag information about not only the shape the material needs to be printed in, but also what type of material it is. Then our slicer and tool path planner can then make the correct tool path for that from that design file.
There's been a lot of communication back and forth on that. It's not a trivial problem.
Heller: Thank you so much for your time today, Dan.