Cartesian Co.’s rapid prototyping machine is putting the “print” back in printed circuit boards.
Despite how far 3D printing has come over the past couple of years, a number of startups have been looking for new ways to take it one step further. Rather than just spit out odds and ends in plastic, what if you could quickly extrude something a bit smarter, like circuit boards, on demand? That’s the idea behind Cartesian Co.’s rapid prototyping machine dubbed Argentum.
While it admittedly may not be the first startup to come up the idea of putting the “print” back in printed circuit boards, it is among the very few that have squeezed the price down to Maker-friendly levels. If the New York-based company sounds familiar, that’s because there’s a good chance you may have come across their incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2013 — called EX¹ at the time — which garnered over $137,000. Since then, Cartesian Co. has shipped nearly 200 units and has worked diligently on improving the reliability of its inks and substrates
Simply put, Cartesian Co. is hoping that Argentum will transform electronics and prototyping in the same way that conventional 3D printing revolutionized traditional manufacturing. The gadget works by layering down silver nano-particles through an inkjet process onto almost any substrate you could imagine.
First, a user must generate the artwork for their electronics design. From there, the image is exported and processed by the Argentum’s custom control software, which generates code that the printer can directly interpret. The printer can then receive the command file via a USB interface, through the stock SD card port or even through a web interface if the user has the RasPiFi add-on. This enables a Maker to go from a circuit board design to reflowing solderable PCBs in a matter of minutes, without all the overhead costs of low production runs — something that is tremendously valuable for hobbyists, engineers and startups on a limited budget with time constraints.
“This lets you create electronics, just as you’ve envisioned — wearable electronics, paper circuits, printed computers or whatever you imagine. A 3D printer creates the objects of your imagination; the Argentum lets you create the electronics of your imagination,” company co-founder Ariel Briner explains.
So, how does the innovative machine work? Essentially, two inkjet cartridges (similar to the ones in a standard printer) print images on a substrate, but instead of ink they lay down two different chemicals. When these two chemicals mix, a reaction occurs, producing silver nano-particles, leaving a silver image. Aside from only conventional circuit board materials, the Argentum can employ a variety of other substrates that might not be commonly associated with electronic circuitry. These include paper, wood, ceramic, Kapton, fiberglass, and looking ahead, fabric.
Take this “Simon Says” game, for example, that the team printed on fiberglass. It has an ATtiny4313 running Arduino and capacitive touchpads for user input.
“One capability of the Argentum that we’re really excited about is the ability to print straight onto fabric. Anyone who has used conductive thread will tell you how frustrating it is when the thread breaks but you can’t find the break! With the Argentum, you can print circuits straight onto the material of your choice,” Briner adds.
The electronics, including an ATmega2560 at its core, are housed inside a sleek, black acrylic enclosure that would be an aesthetically-pleasing mainstay in any Makerspace. The Argentum boasts a build area of 6.7” x 4” with an overall footprint of 16.9” x 14.1” x 5.2” — meaning, it will fit perfectly on a workbench or desktop. On top of that, the Cartesian Co. crew offers complete flexibility with its software from importing an image with default settings and clicking print, to exerting control over every printing variable.
The device prints at a native resolution of 300DPI, which can be enhanced to 600DPI using its software. What’s more, Argentum can print, assemble and test a circuit board in less than two hours, while eliminating the hassle and dangers typically associated with hazardous chemicals.
“This means you will be able print footprints as fine as TSSOP (0.65mm pitch) on our treated G10 substrate and SOIC (0.8mm pitch) on all our other materials including polyimide, linen paper, stone paper and more,” the team writes.
Circuits printed on G10, polyimide and paper can be hand soldered as well. This will, of course, require a bit more skill and needs to be done relatively fast to avoid damaging the silver traces.
Intrigued? Head over to Cartesian Co.’s official site to learn more, and pre-order your own unit for $1,599. Delivery of the next batch is slated for September 2015.