Voxel8 Ships First Electronics 3D Printer to Google ATAP
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on June 02, 2016 |

It's been about a year and a half since a startup called Voxel8 unveiled its multimaterial electronics 3D printer to the world at CES 2015. To showcase the machine’s abilities, the firm 3D printed a small quadcopter, pausing the print midway to insert some electronic components, before resuming the task and producing something that could fly right off the print bed. Now, the Voxel8 Developer’s Kit 3D Printer is finally shipping to customers, and the Harvard University spinoff couldn't have picked a better first customer: Google Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP).

The Voxel8 Developer’s Kit 3D printer prints conductive ink in combination with plastic to create functional electronic objects. (Image courtesy of Voxel8.)
The Voxel8 Developer’s Kit 3D printer prints conductive ink in combination with plastic to create functional electronic objects. (Image courtesy of Voxel8.)

The technology behind the Voxel8 platform was developed by the lab of Jennifer Lewis at Harvard. Utilizing a pneumatic pump, the device is capable of 3D printing viscous materials like silver nanoparticle inks. Combined with a traditional 3D printing extruder, the Developer’s Kit can 3D print PLA material with conductive traces.

Using Autodesk's Project Wire software tool, users are able to draw their circuitry and design specific components, such as resistors or batteries, into their 3D model. When the printer goes to print, it will then pause at these locations so that users can manually insert the electronics. The printer then continues the print unphased.
  


Google ATAP is an ideal customer for the Developer’s Kit. While Google's renegade R&D team likely won’t make it known what its using the Voxel8 machine for, it’s easy to imagine the division prototyping hardware components with the device. As the printer allows for the creation of complex geometries with built-in conductive traces, ATAP might explore ways for embedding sensors into Internet of Things devices.

Voxel8 is also involved in a government-funded project related to 3D printing antenna arrays. As the Voxel8 platform lends itself to 3D printing geometrically complex antennas, the technology might be used to produce more compact antennas than allowed with traditional technologies. Such an application would be just as useful to ATAP as it would be to a government agency.

Prototyping performed with the Developer’s Kit could potentially be scaled up for mass production using an industrial electronics 3D printer, such as the Aerosol Jet 5X from Optomec, currently employed by Lite-On Mobile to mass manufacture electronics, or the Print Valley system from TNO. Despite previous plans, Google has admitted that it probably won’t use 3D printing to produce its Project Ara modular smartphones, but it’s at least fun to think about.

The Developer’s Kit is still available for purchase at its preorder price of $8,999. Voxel8 has also introduced two new pricing models. The Professional package ($11,999) allows for advanced toolpathing configuration options, more conductive ink and greater customer support, while the Enterprise package ($16,999) adds a local cloud server and software. As the Developer’s Kit begins shipping, there’s still no word on when a “Pro” version, alluded to in an interview with Jennifer Lewis, will be released or what new materials, in addition to an elastomer, are in development.

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