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Hardware Hacking Printer Build Hardware

Hands-On With the Voltera V-One PCB Printer (hackaday.com) 37

szczys writes: Eric Evenchick was one of the first backers of the Voltera V-One PCB Printer and just received the 6th device shipped so far. He ran it through its paces and published a review that gives it a positive rating. The hardware uses conductive ink to print traces on FR4 substrate. The board is then flipped upside down and the traces baked on the machine to make them robust. Next the printer dispenses solder paste and the same heating method is used to reflow after components are placed by hand.
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Hands-On With the Voltera V-One PCB Printer

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  • by mpoulton ( 689851 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @06:22PM (#50972369)

    This is a pretty cool concept and a good start, but like consumer 3D printers from five years ago, it is not really practical or cost effective. The biggest problem this thing has is the $2199 price tag. Holy crap! Anybody can already make better quality circuit boards using a cheap laser printer, a blacklight, and some basic supplies. You could even build a DLP projector-based photolithography setup with great resolution for half that price, and people have done so. It just doesn't cost anywhere near $2199 to make good circuit boards.

    That brings us to the next big problem: this thing doesn't make good circuit boards. Conductive ink is not a real substitute for solid copper traces. The traditional etched-foil method ensures uniform and predictable trace properties, and the solid copper has great current carrying capacity and low resistance. That matters a lot in many applications. Good luck handling tens of amps (or even more) in a switching power supply using conductive ink for traces.

    But then there are the holes. Or lack of holes. This thing doesn't drill holes, and it's intended to create boards with no holes at all. It makes "double layer" boards by overlapping insulated conductive traces applied on the same face of the substrate. That's clever and a very cool idea, but it's no substitute for drilled holes and two planes separated by the substrate itself. I would have very little confidence in wire attachments made to this type of board, and it definitely is not suitable for applications with any serious voltage differential between layers, or where impedance control or stray capacitance matters. In other words, it's limited to a small and low-performance set of applications. No multi-megahertz digital signals. No RF circuits. No high voltage (or even line-powered) stuff. No high current handling. For $2199, I'll wait a decade and see where this tech goes.

    • by creimer ( 824291 )

      Or use a $600 CNC router to mill and drill a PCB.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=na9-USi_hZQ [youtube.com]

      • The $600 CNC mill/router is quite cool. Perhaps overkill for the circuit prototype, but that's OK.

        (SIDE NOTE: This kind of 'home CNC' is a brilliant thing. Ever needed to replace a 'little plastic part' of your car, but that is only sold as part of a '$300 assembly?' Model it by whatever means, and then mill it from aluminum. The CNC would pay for itself in a year!)

        RESPONDING TO THE VIDEO: Note that it began with a standard, copper-clad PCB piece, made for such projects, which have available for decad

    • by Cthefuture ( 665326 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @07:36PM (#50972649)

      I use a laser printer, print on glossy magazine paper, put the paper toner-side-down on the PCB, run it through a high temp laminator, peal off the paper in soapy water, then etch. Takes almost no time and I can get very near professional results. I can do extremely tight small traces no problem.

      I have never tried a double-sided board but I bet I could do it by simply printing the circuit such that the paper could be folded over the PCB then the laminator would stick both sides. Probably be difficult to do but not impossible.

      • If I follow what you're saying, you're transferring the toner from the paper to the copper directly and using the toner as an etchant mask?

        Nice way of skipping the photographic style steps.

        Do you have any extra details? e.g. what temperature does your laminator run at (or what model do you use)? and does it depend strongly on the paper type?

        • Yes, the laminator melts the toner and makes it stick to the board. For a while I would just iron it on but that can be very tricky to do (hand pressure, etc).

          I use a LaserJet 1200 which prints very nice thick toner traces.

          My laminator is just a cheap one from walmart that I modified to run at a higher temperature. Even at the higher temperature I have to run the board through it 5 or 6 times (at different angles) to make sure all the toner gets stuck to the board. Pre-heating the board would probably make

          • Huh! Sounds like an interesting technique.

            Got any pictures of the final boards?

          • For printing I use glossy magazine paper (just pages torn out of old magazines) because it's very thin and falls apart/dissolves easily in soapy water leaving just the toner on the board.

            Yes! Glossy magazine paper is glossy for a reason. It has a thin layer of clay and a binder on its surface. That provides the gloss, smooth surface, and prevents image-bleed when in-press.

            For you, the maker, this little layer is one reason the soapy-water transfer is so easy. Magazine paper's surface-coating is a water-soluble/removable layer. No worries about toner infiltrating the paper's fibers —there is that convenient layer in-between preventing it.

            HINT: The soap in the last step is key,

      • I use a laser printer, print on glossy magazine paper, put the paper toner-side-down on the PCB, run it through a high temp laminator, peal off the paper in soapy water, then etch.

        Brilliant! Much easier than using a PMMA resist, as I suggested.

        For those who don't know, laser printers use toner that's a mix of pigment and a wax/plastic binder. The last step your laser printer performs is to roll the paper over a "fuser", which melts the binder, securing the toner to the paper.

        That is, the brilliant step in the quoted post is to use this fact to use the laserjet printout as the resist before etching the copper. Poster uses a 'high-temp laminator', but in a pinch, a household iron mi

    • by WalrusSlayer ( 883300 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @09:32PM (#50973133)

      Full Disclosure: I'm a backer, though not early enough to get an early-bird unit.

      I look forward to trying this tech when I finally get mine. I have lots of reservations, but am still happy with my decision. I'm glad they seem to have found a way to paste/reflow boards that are inked. During the Kickstarter is was going to either be able to lay down ink, or paste/reflow. I.e., you could only paste/reflow a traditionally fabbed copper board, not a prototyped ink board that was fabbed by the Voltera. That was a pretty serious limitation, making the unit somewhat bipolar: you could quickly prototype boards in ink but then had to deal with soldering yourself. Once you were more confident with the design to send out for traditional copper boards, it became a nice alternative to stencils and ovens

      I can't speak to the resistance issue, but in my mind the other huge limiter is the feature resolution limit. Sure, there's a bunch of things you can prototype within the limits of the Voltera, but you don't have to move much beyond Arduino-class designs to bump against the ceiling. Things like the Intel Edison connector is way out of reach for this thing, and even a DIMM connector (think Raspberry Pi Compute Module) is too dense. They will have some breakout boards for common footprints that are too tight, but that's a half-measure in my book and only adds to the number of things that have to get redesigned on the path from a Voltera prototype to a real board.

      In the meantime I went ahead and bought an OtherMill, which can handle much smaller feature sizes, and uses traditional copper-clad boards. You have to connect your own vias, but it will at least drill them for you. And getting the alignment between both sides of the board can be tricky. But I've already done some interesting prototypes with that board, including stencils, and now have a toaster-oven-based reflow box. Had I known about the OtherMill I may not have sprung for the Voltera. Hopefully they complement each other---even if the Voltera becomes mostly a solder dispenser that's a win over what I'm dealing with now.

      • it became a nice alternative to stencils and ovens

        I'm slightly curious about that. If you're already sending your board out to get fabbed, you can get a stencil done at the same time. They cost about a tenner for as many stencils as you can fit on an A4 sheet of transparent film. If you don't need very fine pitch (I did 0.5mm pitch LGA-16 packages no problem), then you can do one at home on a vinyl cutter.

        It did take me a while to get the hang of using a stencil though I must say.

        I also bought a T962 (not

        • it became a nice alternative to stencils and ovens

          I'm slightly curious about that. If you're already sending your board out to get fabbed, you can get a stencil done at the same time. They cost about a tenner for as many stencils as you can fit on an A4 sheet of transparent film. If you don't need very fine pitch (I did 0.5mm pitch LGA-16 packages no problem), then you can do one at home on a vinyl cutter.

          It did take me a while to get the hang of using a stencil though I must say.

          Agreed that these days if you have some way to reflow, then getting a stencil at the same time as the board is painless. I'm still getting the hang of applying the paste, so having the machine do it seems a good alternative as it will likely do a more precise job of it. But I won't know until I get a unit of my own.

          As I said before, in light of the OtherMill and DIY reflow oven, it's no longer clear what niche the Voltera will fill in my workshop. At the very least it will be cool to have been part of ea

          • Agreed that these days if you have some way to reflow, then getting a stencil at the same time as the board is painless. I'm still getting the hang of applying the paste, so having the machine do it seems a good alternative as it will likely do a more precise job of it. But I won't know until I get a unit of my own.

            It took me a while to get the hang of applying paste. Probably took around 10 goes on the first board with much cleaning in between tries. I can now do it first time.

            I've heard good things about

    • by timg11 ( 998678 )
      In addition to the initial purchase price, there is also the cost of the consumables. I looked around the Voltera site, but did not find any pricing for the conductive ink or insulating ink. It does say the printer ships with "samples" of both. In the printer industry shipping with "sample" ink means the ink is so expensive, they can't/won't include are normal supply in the initial purchase price of the printer. I'd like to know what is the consumable cost for "hello world" board?
    • This would have been a game-changer 20 years ago. Today, with proto boards cheap and with a quick turnaround, I see no advantage other than the geek factor.
  • Because PCB specs do matter, even when you know you're going to be reaching for the Dremel to drill the holes. They dictate what parts can and cannot be fitted, and whether a life-size prototype can be made. And whether you're going to have to do it all again in copper for the next phase.

  • High resistance (Score:4, Informative)

    by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @07:03PM (#50972523)

    See the comments section discussing the resistance of the trace. One of the developers commented the following:

    The sheet resistance is 12 miliohms per square, at a height of 70um. You can find the specifications on our website.

    As a rule of thumb, when using our printer you can expect a 12mil trace about 2 inches long should be about 1ohm.

    So 1 ohm for a 12mil 2inch trace. Compare that to 0.04 ohm for the same on a standard circuit board and you end up with something that is effectively useless unless you're only working with small signals.

    • Depends. This is a well known issue with printed tracks. For power tracks yes there could be an issue. That's not to say there aren't workarounds eg manual reinforcing on critical nets. (I even saw that on a 4oz copper board used in a vehicle - busbars bolted to the thing!)

      But for signal tracks I don't think a few ohms is going to make much odds, might even be useful.

    • If the traces sop up solder well, perhaps tin or wave solder the board before putting on the mask? Solder is likely a lot more conductive than the printed traces. Or alternatively after the traces have been printed, put on a layer of solder paste and reflow.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        what about copper plating? jus thinkin

      • That is actually a really good idea. Thanks.

      • If the traces sop up solder well, perhaps tin or wave solder the board before putting on the mask? Solder is likely a lot more conductive than the printed traces. Or alternatively after the traces have been printed, put on a layer of solder paste and re-flow.

        Yes. We have the same problem at the nanometer scale (10^-9 meter). We usually expose custom devices or circuits on that scale (for good reasons) by using an electron beam, directly writing it (like with a pencil) by electron beam lithography (EBL). Also, to either mill, or to deposit platinum metal traces, we use a focused ion-beam (FIB) instrument.

        Although this is not news to many here, what is probably news to many here is that we have the same problem as the quoted poster mentioned. An etched trace

    • Hey, someone with mod points, please mod his comment up. He is sooo right!

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