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.
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.
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.