Typical 3D printing often works great for prototyping and even finished production — so long you want to use a single material such as resin or thermoplastic. But what about when you want to print something more complex, like an integrated circuit? Or even create an electronic device that has the circuitry built right in?
Those are the problems that Voxel8 is solving through its new 3D printer, and by using software co-developed with Autodesk. The results could bring a revolution in how we use 3D printing to create innovative products.
3D Printing Electronics, Including the Circuits
3D printing has come a long way over the past decade, to the point that it’s ubiquitous for prototyping. But the application of 3D printing to finished parts has been hindered by the lack of new materials and supporting design software. As useful as it is, 3D printing hasn’t yet changed the ground rules for manufacturing, especially for electronic devices, which still rely on a 2D circuit board embedded in a 3D object.
Voxel8’s approach is much different. The startup tackles 3D printing as a multidisciplinary problem, bringing together innovations in materials, hardware, and software to establish a new paradigm for creating electronic products.
Like other 3D printers, Voxel8’s printer works at room temperature, dispensing materials pneumatically to the printbed. But there’s a huge difference: besides dispensing matrix material, the Voxel8 machine also dispenses highly conductive silver ink. In other words: it prints circuits directly into whatever you’re making. The accessible design of the printer also allows you to see parts as they are being made. Even better, you can pause printing at key moments to insert electrical components directly into what you’re making, then resume printing your device right around the electronics.
As they describe it, “Now you can design the electronics to fit your part, rather than designing the part around the electronics.”
Born and Reared at Harvard, Now Thriving as a Startup
Voxel8’s technology has grown out of patented work developed by Prof. Jennifer Lewis and her research group at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The Lewis Lab has been developing new materials for 3D printing for more than a decade, but for many years the materials scientists and grad students there were forced to hand-code each specific toolpath for printing any time they were working with multiple materials. Because better software tools didn’t exist, it often took days or weeks of tedious work before any printing occurred.
In early 2014, Autodesk engineers visited the Lewis Lab and saw the potential to print objects made from more than just plastic objects — things like cellphone antennas, hearing aids, and integrated electromechanical devices — that could not be made any other way. The research group and Autodesk joined forces to create software and hardware that could deal with multiple functional materials that have different printing properties, speeds, and cure times. And so a partnership was born.
Taking 3D Printing into the Future
Today, a senior software engineer from Autodesk is embedded full-time in the Voxel8 lab to build out Project Wire — a new kind of browser-based software built to get the most out of Voxel8’s breakthroughs in materials and printing.
Among many other features, Project Wire allows users to import existing CAD models, embed 3D components from an extensive library of choices, create freeform wiring in 3D, and then print it all seamlessly. (For much more on Project Wire, check out Voxel8’s software section and this page from Autodesk’s Spark open platform for 3D printing.)
The result of Project Wire — and all of Voxel8’s work — isn’t just faster circuit prototyping than was ever possible before. The combination of new software, hardware, and materials enables designers to dream up and execute finished products that were never possible before. And that’s the goal: not just a better approach to existing 3D printing, but a revolution that allows people to create new objects that only 3D printers could ever create.
The revolution has begun, and Voxel8 is leading the charge.