Of all the things I’ve ever seen on Kickstarter the Voltera V-One PCB printer is the thing that has grabbed my attention most. I’ve been involved in small-scale PCB prototyping for a good many years and I am convinced that this is a game-changing device which will alter the way that circuits are designed across the world.
Whilst the Voltera V-One itself is limited in what it can achieve, the departure in thinking from traditional forms of prototyping is what sets this device apart. I should say that whilst the device is limited it is, by all accounts, a very capable piece of equipment and I can’t wait to get it up and running.
Why Is It a Game-Changer?
PCB manufacture is only cheap if you do it in bulk. If you send a design to a PCB manufacturer with a view to getting a prototype built there are still setup costs and the price per board for low volume orders is, comparatively, very high. Obviously it also takes time to send your design off and get the prototype back.
There are several methods of in-house prototyping for PCB’s which commonly involve removal of copper from a prefabricated board. One method still in regular use (certainly amongst hobbyists) is to print your circuit on to a transparency, lay the transparency over a piece of copper coated photosensitive PCB, expose it to UV light, wash the board in a developing solution and then drop the board into a ferric chloride bath. The ferric chloride dissolves the exposed areas away leaving you with your design etched in copper. It takes quite a bit of time to carry out all these steps and once this is complete you then have to solder the components on to the board by hand.
The Voltera V-One Strengths
The Voltera V-One allows users to take a much more direct approach and, using a special conductive ink, it prints directly on to FR4 substrate (the green fibreglass bit of a PCB). But it doesn’t stop there. It also dispenses solder paste on to the pads which allows you to place surface mount components on the board and then it reflows the board by heating it up to melt the solder paste. Now this process still takes time but this does mean you can now produce a fully populated prototype board in a matter of a few hours. It’s the thinking behind the process which is what I believe will change the way that we prototype PCB’s in the future.
The unit can print boards up to 5.5” x 4”and it comes complete with everything you need to make your first board. I really do mean everything too, from the substrate to the surface mount components and even a USB lead. You don’t even get one of those with a new paper printer.
This is the first device of its kind and there are limits to what you can achieve with it. It puts conductive ink on to a board which means that printing a design where all the tracks are on one side is a relatively straightforward process. Printing a two-side board adds a layer of complexity as any connections between the two conductive layers need to be connected. On a final design you would use a via which provides a conductive path from one layer to the next through a small hole. On the V-One you can’t automatically insert a via so you need to think about how you are going to track between layers. The manufacturing team have plenty of guidance available for achieving this and there is a growing Voltera community online where people will no doubt be coming up with new solutions to common problems all the time.
The consumables are currently expensive and can only be purchased from the manufacturer but I would expect this to change over time. The creators have poured their hearts and souls into this project and it seems only fair that they should be able to reap as much benefit as possible whilst they dominate the market place.
I’ll post some updates once I’ve got mine up and running and hopefully a video of it in action. If you’re looking for more information on the V-One then check out the Voltera web site at http://www.voltera.io
I am really looking forward to trying this out and I remain resolute in my belief that the Voltera V-One is a major first in the new breed of revolutionary desktop prototyping devices that we’re starting to see all over the crowdfunding marketplace. Vive la revolution!