The EX1 is now called the Argentum, and you can find it at cartesianco.com. Thanks for the great Kickstarter!
What is it?
The Cartesian Co. printer EX¹ transforms electronics and prototyping in the same way that 3D printing has made things possible that were inconceivable even 5 years ago.
The EX¹ printer is not designed to create any 3D object like normal 3D printers. It’s been crafted and designed for one key purpose, to allow you to 3D print circuit boards, layering silver nano particles onto paper or any suitable surface to rapidly create a circuit board. In 2011, an article in Wired said that within two years 3D printers could print electronic circuits. Two years to the day, we’re announcing the EX¹, a printer that allows you to rapidly 3D print circuit boards.
The process is as easy as clicking File > Print. 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 EX¹ lets you create the electronics of your imagination.
What you can make
Breadboards or sewable circuits are great ways to get into electronics but where do you go after that? Sure etching a PCB is a fun project the first time, but anyone who has done it more than once will tell you how time consuming and frustrating it can be. The barrier to entry into the world of complex circuitry is just too high for many people; not exactly an environment conducive to experimentation.
In addition to more conventional circuit board materials the EX¹ can print on a variety of different substrates you might not associate with circuits. Materials we have been able to print on include plastic (many types), glass, wood, ceramic, silicone and even fabric and paper. In fact it is possible to print on most surfaces. If that's not enough, we are developing coatings that can allow virtually any surface to be printed on.
Cartesian Co. wants to change the way you think about electronics in the same way that 3D printers fundamentally changed the way we think about making physical objects. Imagine the freedom to instantly test your ideas without the monotony of making a PCB by hand, the time spent wiring it on a breadboard or the days spent waiting to get your design back from a board house. With the EX¹ you can make complex circuits as easily as if they were printed on your desktop printer.
One capability of the EX¹ 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 EX¹ you can print circuits straight onto the material of your choice.
How it works
The reason we created the EX¹ is simple; we got sick of making PCBs by hand. We got so sick we set out to find a way to make circuits quickly and effortlessly.
The basic principle of operation is simple. Two inkjet cartridges similar to the ones in your desktop printer print images on a substrate, but instead of ink they lay down two different chemicals. When these two chemicals mix, a reaction occurs to produce silver nano particles, leaving a silver image on the substrate.
After a year of working on the EX¹ we believe we've finally created a printer that will allow people to design and make radically new things. With a print area of 17.5 x 8cm (6.9 x 3.2in) you'll be able to print boards well above the size of what you can design in the free version of Eagle. At a size of 43 X 32 X 17cm (17 x 12.6 x 6.7in) its roughly the same size as your Canon or Epson printer at home. Weighing in at only 6kg (13.5lb) it's very portable and will be perfect to take to work or your local hackerspace.
How hard is it to use your home printer or office photocopier? Not hard (we hope), and that's exactly what we've aimed for with our software.
But of course printing electronics isn't exactly the same as printing a cute baby photo. We give you complete flexibility with our software, anything from just importing an image and clicking print, all the way through to having control over every printing variable.
We've included presets and tools to make getting into making electronics as easy as possible, while at the same time allowing experienced pros to push the boundaries of what can be done.
As well as making it easy for people to create complex circuits we wanted to make it easier to put them together. You can always solder the circuits but if you're not at that stage yet we've been successfully using conductive glues that's as easy as finger painting. In fact, when you use it with a paper circuit it almost IS finger painting!
We're developing new ways of treating and coating everyday materials to be printed on, so there's nothing holding you back from creating whatever your heart desires.
The materials you can print onto is only half of the equation. Equally important are the inks you're using to do so. We're actively working on new ink formulations and processes to ensure using your printer is as easy and reliable as possible.
The inks we are using are very safe and we won't be gouging you for refills like some printer companies out there (we hate that too!).
Developing the EX¹ has been a long and difficult road but we’re very happy with the product that we’ve come out with so far. We have spent the last year experimenting with different chemical combinations, off the shelf printers and our own designs for X Y gantries. After some successful tests mixing the Silver Nitrate with Ascorbic Acid to make Silver, we found that the easiest and most precise way of delivering the liquids was definitely with an inkjet printer. Obviously it would be best if we could just take a standard printer off the shelf and fill it with our chemicals and we definitely tried this….many… many times. In the end, having the paper rolled through the printer was not nearly precise enough to align multiple layers and ultimately a home printer was just not designed to build an electronics masterpiece.
The next step was to build our own X Y plotter to hone the whole system to a really reliable product. Luckily 3D printers have had this same problem for years and we built up from well researched designs to test through a number of prototypes. In fact one of the first prototypes of the design was strapped directly to the plotter system on a MakerBot Cupcake. After we demystified the super-secret internal workings of an inkjet cartridge, we started printing out circuits on our very own machine. After a few more iterations and then just a couple more (there was a reason we wanted to make prototyping faster right?) we arrived at the product that you see on this page. As you can see it works pretty well and we’ve made plenty of fully operational circuits.
But we’re not done yet!! There are still plenty more ideas running through our heads that we want to make ready for final production and we don’t ever intend to stop making improvements for the next generation. If you’re reading this right now then you probably understand our passion for building something yourself and hopefully you can use the EX1 to make the next big thing yourself.
The entire way through the development we've kept scalable production in mind. In that sense, we've designed the printer to be made with off the shelf components and the smallest alteration possible. This has the side effect of making the printer very easy to upgrade or improve at home, because all of the components (rods, bearings, motors, bolts, etc.) are standard.
The main customized part of the printer is the laser cut acrylic. We specifically chose laser cutting for its ability to scale up or down easily. Our large laser cutter gives us the ability to manufacture units in-house, enabling us to keep a close eye on quality. Since laser cutting is a completely automated process, it can be handled out of house if necessary.
Why we need you
As far as we've come, we've only just scratched the surface of what's possible using this technology. We've got a million ideas about how to make printing circuits easier but only two hands each.
We think this technology has the potential to change the world, but we need you to take it further.
Who we are
We are an engineering studio with teams based in the US and Australia. We all have experience in the field of rapid prototyping. Check out our Bio for more information on the team.
Backers will get to choose between these two designs on t-shirts.
The Macgyver kit is a surface mount parts library that includes pretty much every component you could ever need. We have crafted the kit to include every component we use and then some. With the kit you can make every surface mount example featured on this page. The kit even comes with silver conductive glue and Z-Axis conductive tape for an assembly experience like no other - no soldering required! Check here for a comprehensive list of what's included.
Risks and challenges
We've identified a number of risks and challenges that have the potential to disrupt the project. We have broken these down into 3 separate categories:
PARTS SUPPLY AND LOGISTICS
Maintaining a steady, consistent supply of parts is a key aspect to the success of any hardware business. We have a great relationship with our hardware and electrical suppliers and we don't foresee any issues with part quality. That said, supply issues are inevitable and to that end we have gone to great lengths to ensure the EX¹ is made entirely from off the shelf parts available from several suppliers.
Making a one off prototype and a product for mass manufacture are two very different things, often requiring opposing skill sets. We have studied a number of successful and unsuccessful companies to try to learn as much as we can about what makes and breaks them. One example of a common problem we intend to avoid is in scaling up production. Typically companies find suppliers and a manufacturer based on the number of units they intend to ship. This is the most cost effective way of doing things. However, quality and consistency issues often arise in the first batch of production units, mainly because the production line is a work in progress. We have decided to make our first production run in-house giving us complete control, and allowing us to check and recheck quality. You simply can't get this level of control by outsourcing production.
It's a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Growing pains are often the result of trying to grow a company's capabilities too fast and making silly mistakes along the way. Some all too common examples of this are hiring too quickly, hiring the wrong people, getting lost in the product, and loosing touch with our backers/community. As with manufacturing, this is another problem we take seriously and have looked to history to avoid common errors. We have been on the lookout for talent since starting work on the prototype and are quick to get them on board when we spot them.
As per the Kickstarter rules your card will not be charged until our campaign has ended, and of course only if the project is fully funded. If our project does not reach its funding goal, your card will never be charged. You can find all funding details on the Kickstarter link below:
Money raised through the kickstarter goes to helping us push this idea into full-blown production. We’ll be hiring more people, getting more equipment, and exploring the limits of this technology. Most importantly, we’re looking to build a community, and that means that you’re never going to be in the dark.
The printer has a resolution of 600 DPI and we've tested making tracks/pads down to SOIC components (pin spacing of 1.27mm) very reliably on lots of different substrates (paper, FR4, plastic etc.). The achievable feature size largely depends on the material being printed on. Non-pourous substrates lend themselves to finer resolution. We’ve been able to print TSSOP (0.65mm 25.6 thou pitch) on FR4. We are still pushing the limits to get even finer resolution.
We started graphing the conductivity vs. various things but we soon realized there wasn't any point because it was pretty much as good as copper traces! We'll actually be doing an update on this topic very soon.
We have successfully printed onto paper, kapton plastic, fabric, acrylic, and stickers. There are many more surfaces that we’re yet to explore, and we’re hopeful to add to this list very soon.
The printer uses Silver Nitrate and Ascorbic acid. Silver Nitrate has been used in applications such as photography for centuries, and while we wouldn’t recommend serving the ink up with dinner, the finished circuits are safe to handle. Ascorbic acid is nothing more than vitamin C.
The EX1 uses off-the-shelf cartridges that can be found online and assembled at home, if that’s what you’re into. We’ll also be selling cartridges ready to go, so you won’t have to worry at all, and can get straight to the printing.
Inkjetting is the only technology that is both ready and cheap right now. Research into other technologies is ongoing, but these are not yet production-ready let alone within a maker’s budget (unless you have a spare ten grand).
It really depends what you’re looking to do! Ink usage comes down to a number of factors, including the size of the circuit, the desired conductivity, and what surface you’re printing on.
We’ve managed to print dozens and dozens of our 555 flasher circuits, as well as all our fabric circuits, without going through a single cartridge.
We’re working hard to build an advanced manufacturing process and a secure supply chain for cartridges so that we can offer them to you as cheaply as possible. This is an ongoing process and we’re not quite there yet, but we’re close and you’re always going to be in the loop.
We can’t give you a final price just yet, but we’re not looking to be stereotypical evil executives who lure you in with a flashy printer only to ruin you with ink costs. Our goal is to bring your projects to life, and we can’t do that if we’re charging through the nose.
We have been experimenting with multi-layered circuits, but we don’t have a fully operational prototype yet. We’re confident that it can be done, and with your help we’re going to spend the coming months investigating it further.
Absolutely! You can solder with an iron, hot air reflow, or even use conductive glue (which we’ve included in the Macgyver Kit for you). What works best will depend on the surface you’re printing on, and we encourage you to experiment.
Circuits on paper take around an hour to print, and those on fabric take longer (due to increased surface roughness). As an example, the 555 timer circuit printed on paper took 30 minutes to print.
We’re still working hard on improving the printer before we ship it to you, so we’re not 100% sure how big and heavy the final package will be. That means we can’t give a firm price on shipping yet. However, we can guarantee that shipping into the US will be no more than $150, and likely much less.
We wanted to be able to support a wide range of design programs, so all you need to print with is an image file. You can export these from your favourite PCB software (such as Eagle or Altium), or you can even make them yourself in Paint.
The software will let you configure all sorts of settings before exporting commands to the printer, including tessellation, weaving, and layer size. The EX1 can print from a SD card or stream from your computer, just like your 3D printer.
Not directly. The software only accepts image files at the current time, and any software which can create GRBL files should be able to export these easily.
Definitely! You can run our software on OS X, Windows, or Linux. The only prerequisite is Python (along with some common Python packages). This means that you can run the printer off a Raspberry Pi if you want.
We can’t make any promises at this stage but we’ve been where you are before and we understand how important this is. We’re working very hard to set up a support system that you can come to for hardware as well as software help. We can guarantee that you’ll get a printer that works and that we will hold you first brave pioneers in the highest of esteems whenever you need our help.
Yes, the printer will be available on our web store after the kickstarter is over. However, we will be fulfilling orders placed through the kickstarter first.
We're still contemplating developing this because it would obviously mean we can get the technology to a lot of people for cheaper and with less manufacturing on our side. Unfortunately there's still a few problems associated with performing this, such as interfacing to the inkjet drivers from many different 3D printer drivers, designing mounts that are compatible with many different printers (without colliding with anything else and still providing a reasonable print area), stability in a 3D printer head (that wasn't designed to take the increased inertia and more distributed weight of the cartridges and mount).
Initial testing was performed on gantry systems very similar to most 3D printers but it was found that the larger mass and increased size of the cartridges/mounting led to a very unstable tool-head. This led to vibrations during prints, decreasing resolution and increasing wear on bearings and mounts.
We're yet to decide whether or not we will produce a product like this that the open source community can help to develop further simply because we don't think it will be good enough. The EX¹, however is something that we're building from the ground up tailored entirely for it's purpose of printing circuits. So just for now, we want to focus on making the EX¹ as good as it can be without the restrictions of a pre-existing platform.
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