Squink Evolves into a PCB 3D Printer

BotFactory adds multilayer PCB fabrication to its Squink PCB printer.

According to industry expert Hod Lipson, we’re still in the first stage of 3D printing’s evolution. The tech is still primarily used to create individual components, often prototypes at that. In subsequent stages of the technology’s maturation, however, 3D printing will be implemented to 3D print complete functional objects. A key ingredient to fabricating something as complex as a smartphone will be the 3D printing of conductive materials for laying circuitry. At the moment, a new breed of 3D printers has started to emerge to fill this need, including the Aerosol Jet series from Optomec, the electronics 3D printer from Voxel8 and the DragonFly 2020 printed circuit board (PCB) 3D printer from Nano Dimension. With the possible exception of Voxel8’s device, however, these machines cost a pretty penny. A small startup out of Queens, New York, has developed a possible low-cost alternative for 3D printing circuits on one’s desktop. Additionally, the Squink PCB printer from BotFactory has just received a significant upgrade that allows for the 3D printing of multilayer circuit boards.

The Squink is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign launched in 2014, earning about $100,000 to fund the manufacturing of a printer capable of prototyping a simple PCB, necessary for driving electronic devices. The original system was capable of laying down conductive ink onto a stiff or flexible substrate before printing conductive glue dots where pins for components, like transistors and resistors, would be placed. Then, a pick-and-place arm would use computer vision to select the proper component, lift it up via suction, rotate it to its proper orientation and situate it in the proper location.

BotFactory’s Squink has since received a significant upgrade, allowing for the construction of multilayer PCBs. Through the use of a new “Multilayer Package,” the Squink is able to construct PCBs in which multiple PCBs are stacked and connected together. This allows for the construction of a more complex circuit board at a smaller size, as more electronic components can be fitted onto a single board than is possible with a flat, two-dimensional PCB. This is particularly important as electronic devices become smaller and have less room for larger, more numerous PCBs.

A multilayer PCB made with Squink. (Image courtesy of BotFactory.)

A multilayer PCB made with Squink. (Image courtesy of BotFactory.)

The “Multilayer Package” adds a UV-curing lamp and an insulating ink cartridge to the Squink system. Upon printing a layer of circuitry, the insulating ink is then printed on top of the previous traces before the curing lamp cures the ink. Users can then 3D print a subsequent layer on top of the first, with their foundational circuit safely protected. Alternatively, an insulating layer can be added to the first, with the Squink able to print new circuitry on top of that. The new package also facilitates the 3D printing of circuits onto porous, stretchable and cloth materials, not previously possible with Squink’s conductive ink alone.

A multi-layer PCB made with the Squink.

A flexible, multi-layer PCB made with Squink. (Image courtesy of BotFactory.)

According to BotFactory, users can design multilayer PCBs in standard CAD software used for circuits, like Eagle, Altium and KiCad. The models are then exported as GERBER files, which the Squink will use to produce the final product. At the moment, BotFactory claims to have nailed down two-layer circuit printing but is working to improve their software and materials to enable further layers to be printed with greater ease. In the meantime, the startup suggests that users can begin experimenting with more than two layers now. A recent interview suggests that those users may very well be capable, as J.F. Brandon, the VP of sales and marketing for BotFactory, said that current customers include Fortune 500 companies and someone at NASA.

The Squink “Multilayer Package” from BotFactory. (Image courtesy of BotFactory.)

The Squink “Multilayer Package” from BotFactory. (Image courtesy of BotFactory.)

The new and improved Squink was unveiled at the Printed Electronics Europe Show 2016 on April 27 and 28 in Berlin and can be purchased either as a complete package for $3,500 or as an add-on to the original Squink for just $400. Though Nano Dimension does not disclose the price of its own multilayer PCB printer, it is estimated to cost over $50,000, without the ability to solder or pick-and-place components. This makes the Squink a steal for PCB prototyping. It may only be used for prototyping purposes at the moment, but it’s not difficult to imagine that, when combined with existing 3D printing technology, electronic components could be integrated directly into a 3D-printed object. Then, we might just be ready for the next phase of 3D printing’s evolution.