Today the winners of the Techcrunch Hardware Battlefield 2015 were decided and topping the list was Voltera and their V-One circuit printer and despite some (serious) reservations, we’ve got to admit it’s hard not to want one!
Putting the “printed” back in printed-circuit board?
On the surface this seems like a valid concept and something every engineer wishes they would have: the ability to print a circuit board, there on your desktop, in a matter of a few hours, tops (they’re envisioning 1 hour, we’re leaving them some wiggle room). And from what it appears, the model is certainly novel (though not the first of its type) using a combination of traditional deposition printing like we’ve seen explode with ABS & PLA printers and the like, and combining that with a conductive ink that can be layered, along with insulating material (deposited as well) to enable even the creation of multi-layer circuits. Having a look at the presentation though did raise some questions (read: made us a little uneasy) not the least of which was the position of this as a tool for building prototypes.
What do you mean by “prototype”?
As any professional hardware engineer whose built more than a couple of PCBs knows, the closer you get to the real thing, the more confident you are that you’ll hit the target when it comes time to say “go”. And as one’s experience grows, so inversely does our tolerance for any changes between prototype and production boards, thus, our interest was in understanding just what the boys meant when they said “prototype”.
Instead, let’s call this a machine for “proof of concept” and not what pro’s call “prototypes” or certainly not of the pre-production sort as the video implies. Case in point was the model for depositing material which (noting this was a demo model) seemed to be thick and limited in its precision (though we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt as they claim 10 mil tracks / spacing on their site). For example, we couldn’t imagine trying to handle 5 mil tracks at 5 mil spacing, much less chip-scale packages, or 3x3mm BGAs (Nordic), or the like. Thus it seems more appropriate to say the play is “use the big packages and prove the concept, then switch to something smaller when it comes time to build the real-deal”. This is flawed though for a number of reasons…
Firstly, this implies I need to build two PCB files, one for prototype and one production and this simply can’t be. Not only does the prototype need to match the production board, but even if we did do this, the time saved by having this sitting on one’s desk would surely be eclipsed by the time spent laying out two versions of the same PCB. After all, the bulk of the time spent designing a PCB in a CAD tool is spent building parts and routing boards and this model implies both need to happen, twice.
Secondly is the fact that a change in package implies a change in pin numbering that extends (often) all the way back to the schematic. Thus, to do this right, I would need to recreate the schematic symbols and validate them, rewire the schematic and validate that, then again, we’re back to the PCB and doing that all over again.
So what if it is that precise?
Even if the system can handle our finer pitch parts and recklessly small traces / spacing, the larger challenge remains that for production, we still need to validate the PCB’s that result from our production process and thus, this again becomes a “proof of concept” system and not something we’d use – as they indicate in their pitch – for prototypes. Simply put, validating a board is a process of validating the design, the continuity, the function, and the process AND doing this at scale. The V-One may power my ability to validate a version of the design, its continuity, its function, all in the V-One context, but it won’t replace the need to send off those PCBs for prototype and get them validated the old fashioned way. So in this way, this is a nice tool for the folks looking to measure twice and cut once…but careful, as you just might find yourself measuring three or even four times when all’s said and done.
So why do we still love it?
Let’s be clear, we’re not “down” on the V-One. This definitely has teeth and for their stated market of hardware startups and hobbyists, this could make design far more iterative and more in line with modern software development workflows. Also, the machine is said to be able to deposit solder paste and with a built-in hotplate, is able to reflow those finer pitch parts which in and of itself is worth gold. After all, you’ll need it when you realize there’s no soldermask on the PCB and that triple espresso is searing thru your veins.