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Printing circuits at home? It’s now possible, and not just for engineers

An Australian Kickstarter project that promises 3D printing of electric circuits has reached a massive $137K, 458% of its funding goal. Could we now build electronic devices at home, and what does this promise us?

3D printing is all the rage right now with the promise of creating tools, trinkets and even weapons all in the comfort of your home.

One area in which 3D printing cannot help is with building electronic devices, because they cannot yet embed conductive materials.

This is where Cartesian Co have stepped in to create a printer that uses 3D printing techniques to print circuits onto a wide range of materials – from paper to fabric.

Before we get too carried away in the hype, let’s just remember that 3D printers are not yet a consumer product, they are still out of reach of many people.

However, they are within reach of some families and definitely for small businesses. This makes the problem of small scale fabrication largely go away for prototyping and for replacing damaged components.

Most of the 3D printers that fall within this category, though, are limited to printing in a single material – usually thermosetting plastic. This leads to monochromatic designs and not a lot of room for creative freedom, and definitely no way to print electrical contacts into things.

Meanwhile, electrical engineers have been making printed circuit boards (PCBs) the same way for decades. It’s a process that is much like developing photographic film. You would design the circuit paths on a computer, print on to a transparent sheet.

That sheet is then laid over the circuit board material and exposed to UV light – the image of the circuit being projected onto the board. As if that isn’t enough, there’s then a time consuming process of dousing the board in several caustic chemicals to dissolve the excess surface copper, leaving just the circuit design.

It’s slow, semi-dangerous, and consumes a lot of material which makes it expensive. Now just imagine having to do that all that every time you wanted to tweak the circuit design. No thanks!

This is the problem that Cartesian Co wanted to solve with its “EX1” printer.

Its Kickstarter page explains that they started trying to modify inkjet printers to print conductive circuits. Surprisingly, Cartesian Co reported that those types of printer weren’t accurate enough for their needs.

Fortunately, that was exactly the type of problem that had been solved by 3D printer makers such as those behind the “MakerBot” 3D printer kit makers. Thus started the process of turning a 3D printer into a circuit printer.

Cartesian Co’s trick to printing something that can conduct electricity is to print the circuit pattern with a special chemical, then print a second layer with another chemical. When those two chemicals come into contact, they react and produce nano-particles of Silver. This method opens up lots of creative options as the chemicals can be printed to paper, plastic, and even fabric.

Being able to print to fabric means it’s possible to create fashion and jewellery items with lights – or even wearable sensors. One of Cartesian Co’s example items, printed by the EX1, is a fabric bracelet with button cell (i.e. watch battery) connected to a series of red LEDs. The bracelet is sealed with a magnet that snaps onto the battery and completes the circuit.

Cartesian Co have even thought about hobbyists who aren’t proficient with a soldering iron. The circuit printing kit is supplied with conductive glue so that electronic components can be fixed to the printed circuits as if you were building a collage.

The EX1 is going to make prototyping far easier for electrical engineers and students, but it’s also going to make producing electronic systems far more accessible to hobbyists.

The EX1 will set you back $2000 to $3000, depending on the type of Kickstarter backing you choose. This means it isn’t going to be in every home, but it is viable for small businesses like “maker spaces” to have, and for businesses similar to Café Press and Shapeways to have users upload and sell circuit designs to the rest of the world.

Techly contacted Cartesian Co for comment, but they had not replied by the time of publication.

About the author

David Gilson is a UK based freelance technology journalist. His most recent work has with CoinDesk reporting on the bleeding edge of digital currencies like Bitcoin. Prior to this, he has been featured on CNET UK, All About Windows Phone (and its sister sites), Android Authority and iPhone Hacks, among others. You’ll never find him without at least one device from each mobile platform.

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