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The gap between idea and prototype, prototype and product, is shrinking. Capabilities like 3D printing, that once were the only availability to the largest of companies, can now be acquired off the shelf in your local Best Buy, and one of the main drivers of this trend has been the availability of easy access to boards like the Arduino—which allows rapid, cheap, prototyping for embedded systems—turning what used to be fairly tough hardware problems into simpler software problems.

However once you’ve designed your circuit, taking it off the breadboard can still be somewhat problematic. In the last few years designing a custom PCB has become a lot easier—both with the free availability of EAGLE and alternatives, but also simpler tools with much shallower learning curves like Fritzing—however once your PCB is designed you’re faced with the hurdle of etching or milling your PCB at home or sending it out for production.

Although entirely possible home etching can be messy and dangerous and, until the arrival of the OtherMill, milling PCBs at home was generally out of reach of most people. That left services like OSH Park—and while relatively cheap, and very reliable, sending out for your PCB can take days, possibly weeks if you’re price sensitive. That’s a problem if you’re in rapid prototyping phase where your PCB design can be changing from hour-to-hour let alone day-to-day.

The Squink Personal Electronics Factory

The Squink Personal Electronics Factory

There’s also the problem that a lot of people aren’t comfortable soldering surface mount parts at home, and as more and more of the interesting parts move to SMD only, that’s increasingly starting to limit the designs you can build at home. Although this is also driving a market for breakout boards for these parts—that companies like Adafruit and Sparkfun thrive on—which is at least partially providing a band-aid for the problem in the short term, in the longer term home hobbyists need a better solution.

Which is where the Squink comes in, unlike traditional machines it doesn’t etch, or mill, the circuit. Instead it uses a new generation of conductive inks to print the circuit directly onto a substrate—pretty much any substrate. For while the Squink can print onto standard FR4 substrate, it’s equally (better?) suited to print onto more flexible materials like plastics or even paper, and along with small boards—like the MetaWear or the Light Blue Bean—could make it perfect for moving your wearables prototypes into limited production.

The conductive ink printing of the Squink can easily be used to produce flexible circuits

The conductive ink printing of the Squink can easily be used to produce flexible circuits

But it also does something fairly unique, as well as laying out the circuit in conductive ink, the Squink has a built in pick-and-place capability, using conductive epoxy to fix the components into place in the circuit.

While I’ve seen prototype pick-and-place machines for the home market before—I think we’re going to start to see quite a few of them appear on the market over the next six months to a year—the use of epoxy here rather than solder is interesting. It could mean that it’s actually going to be easier to use the increasingly more available—and sometimes cheaper—SMD components than it is to use the traditional through-hole components we’ve all be used to in the past.

I recently talked to Michael Knox—one of the co-founders of BotFactory—about the Squink and their Kickstarter to try and find out more about the machine.

The Squink is currently struggling to reach it’s $100k goal on Kickstarter—probably due to the lack of low dollar value pledge levels, at $2.5k one of the machines is still a little on the expensive side, although for what it can do it’s probably a bargain if you’re an early adopter in need of its capabilities.

However whether it reaches it’s goal or not, I think we’ll see more of the technology behind it. It’s going to be interesting to see whether conductive ink, and epoxies, will start to push out soldering as the solution for building custom circuits at home.

Alasdair Allan

Alasdair Allan

Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.


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  • Clyde Shaffer

    Took long enough. There’s not much difference between the requirements for a pick-and-place machine and a 3D printer, and conductive ink has been around for a while. The possibility of a circuit printer was pretty obvious.

    The next logical step is to build a combined circuit printer and 3D printer. It could swap between tool heads for placing surface-mount components and for extruding plastic filament. A second extruder could lay out conductive extrusion. While we’re at it, this thing could also be able to switch to a rotary bit tool for subtractive operations.

    The total cost of the device would be a bit more than the usual desktop 3D printer or circuit fabber, but if it were modular you’d be able to buy it with just one of the tool heads and add the others to the rack as you need them.

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  • COBRACHOPPERGIRL

    $2500 is not a reasonable price for a printer. Which is what it is, a printer that uses conductive ink. It has to be under $250, and even substantially lower before you have anything at all….

    • botfactory

      Squink also picks and places components.

  • David Clunie

    1999 for a print only? 2499 for a print/with extras, 2999 for everything? they must be joking! For what i can tell its not much more than a print bot simple (which are very cheap in cost) with a few add ons that look 3d printed (even if they’re provided in metal on release does not justify the cost one bit)

  • DWS

    Nice for hobbyists, but as modern electronics has moved into multilayer, high speed tech such as controlled impedance, differential pairs etc, this is hardly going to find much of a market in industry.

  • Sherry Huss

    These makers will be at World Maker Faire New York 2014. Looking forward to their presence…..

    • http://www.cheapinkdiscounts.com/ Fredrick Banks

      Thanks for letting us know. I’ll definitely be checking it out. I love this kind of stuff.

  • Will Lyon

    The OtherMill? HA! At $2100 and a 4-month wait it’s still out of reach for most people. Get the ShapeOko 2 like I did for $700 and even with the optional upgrades you’re still way under the OtherMill cost and you can GET IT NOW! Does PCB’s perfectly.

  • http://beagleboard.org jkridner
  • http://jkridner.wordpress.com jkridner

    Reblogged this on Beagle Blogger and commented:
    Personal electronics factory built on #BeagleBoneBlack — support the Kickstarter campaign now!

  • CarlosO

    I’m Carlos from BotFactory and would like to share my two grains of salt on the discussion.

    3-axis systems are shared among different machines. CNC, Milling Machines, 3D printers, Professional Pick and Place systems and others use the same principle; this is not where the innovation is happening.

    Squink uses a 3-axis system, but is different from the rest as it can print conductive ink, is capable of extruding glue very accurately and can pick and place SMT components.

    There’s a bunch of software, materials research and industrial design behind it, and as our team keeps working to bring something awesome for the maker community we are breaking a paradigm that hasn’t changed in a long time. We’re working on bringing additive multi-layering, we’re improving the resolution of tracks and we’re simplifying picking and placing.

    We’re realizing that you can’t compare the boards “Squink” produces to a manufactured board, in the same way you can’t compare a 3D printed part to a part made using injection molding (especially if your design needs supports), but the fact that you can crank out boards so fast, and for so little, is really amazing and will enable people to do electronics, even when they never thought they would… Long live the makers!!

    Thanks to Make Magazine for the article, and please let the feedback flow. We learn a lot from it.

    Carlos

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