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Entering the Era of 3D Printed Electronics

The days when 3D printing was being used only for prototyping are long gone. In the not too distant future, the electronics industry will embark on a fascinating journey that realizes the advent of 3D printed electronics.

3D printing has gone through some exciting developmental stages in the past few years. Now, we can print 3D titanium objects and add transformation capabilities to objects using 4D printing. Now, we enter a new stage. Voxel8 and Autodesk have developed a fully integrated 3D printed electronics platform based on ten years of research conducted by the Lewis Research Group at Harvard University developing novel conducting materials and 3D printing technology.

Voxel8's 3D printed fully functional quadcopter using thermoplastics and highly conductive silver ink.

Voxel8's 3D printed fully functional quadcopter using thermoplastics and highly conductive silver ink.

Voxel8, a 3D printed electronics startup founded by Harvard professor Jennifer A. Lewis, who leads the Lewis Research Group at Harvard University, has conducted research and developed novel conductive materials and 3D printing technology with her team for the past decade. The Lewis Research Group, co-founded by two former Lewis Lab Ph.D students Michael Bell and Travis Busbee, and by Jack Minardi and Daniel Oliver, is a multi-disciplinary team that includes two female hardware engineers.

The Lewis Lab's research in multi-material 3D printing include conductive inks for printed electronics, lightweight composites, lithium ion micro-batteries, and embedded sensors in stretchable matrices. Watch the short video below to see Voxel8's 3D electronics printer in action printing a quadcopter: 

Highly conductive ink, printed batteries, and the future of electronics

Voxel8's 3D electronics printer is a hybrid 3D printer that can be fed with both plastic and conductive ink, which is a key necessary ingredient to printing 3D electronics. The printer is able to produce quadcopters, electromagnets, and fully functional 3D electromechanical assemblies. According to Voxel8, their first generation inks are 5,000 times more conductive than carbon-based inks currently used in 3D printing, and 20,000 times more conductive than the most conductive filled-thermoplastic filaments; the conductive silver material is over 1,000 times more conductive than any other material existing to date. The inks use suspended nanoparticles of materials such as compounds of lithium for batteries and silver for wires. The printed lithium-ion batteries, which measure, one millimeter square deliver the performance of regular commercial batteries.

These highly conductive inks can be printed at room temperature rather than the high temperatures normally required to work with high-performance electronics and can be seamlessly integrated with matrix materials. Even though Voxel8 has initially focused on conductive inks, there are many new materials such as advanced matrix materials in the pipeline that will be released in the future. Designers and engineers will be able to use the same printer to print different sorts of materials with a variety of electrical and mechanical properties.

Embedding 3D circuitry

Voxel8 has partnered with Autodesk, a leader in 3D design software. The printer's design process will be powered by Autodesk's new design tool called Project Wire, a 3D printing software that enables electronics to be embedded within the structure of the device.  

Circuit prototyping using Autodesk's Project Wire with the Voxel8 printer.

Circuit prototyping using Autodesk's Project Wire with the Voxel8 printer.

According to Autodesk, the future will bring layer-by-layer printed electronic devices as one single piece rather than assembled. This new approach will dramatically change electronics manufacturing as we know it, influencing the whole supply chain from start to finish. The electronics supply chain will have to quickly adapt to maintain competitive business agilitg. 

LED circuit powered via USB

LED circuit powered via USB

Voxel8 aims to provide advanced tools for electronics manufacturers. The developer version of the Voxel8 3D electronics printer is already available for ordering with an expected delivery time by the end of this year. In the future, a more economic printer will be available to hobbyists who wish to experiment with 3D printing their own electronics.

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