Using a 3D Printer for Rapid Prototyping
Instead of ordering board after board, we came across a simple, cost-effective solution: printing them at home.
With a PCB 3D printer like the Voltera, we’re able to print out our own circuit boards at home. The printer takes a fiberglass material called substrate and lets us dispense silver conductive ink traces onto it, which allows us to create circuits. We can attach those circuits to a development kit like a Beaglebone using a specially designed PCB header.
This approach is much easier to do than the artful soldering that’s usually required to connect a board to a dev kit, which requires specialized skills and is more difficult to do on a distributed basis.
So, how much faster does the 3D printer make us? I’ve got a fun example.
On a recent project, the device we were building needed to use LED lights, and I wanted to get an idea of what the LED ratings would look like. I’m a software engineer with some electrical engineering (EE) background, and I didn’t want to take up any of our EE team’s valuable time to have them figure this out for me.
So, I designed my own board. I had to describe to my computer what the footprint of the board would be and describe all the pads, their positions, and which pads the power and the ground would connect to. It’s like designing software but in a hard fashion.
Then, I printed the board, plugged it into power, and immediately witnessed the most beautiful fireworks display I’ve ever seen. (For those who may be less technical, that’s not supposed to happen.) After blowing away the smoke, I quickly realized that I had made a rather foolish mistake: I’d accidentally swapped the power and the ground pins.
Luckily, I had the 3D printer. Once I’d realized my error, it took me about 30 minutes to correct it, and another couple of hours for the new board to print. When it was complete, I plugged it in and it worked beautifully. (The old one, I found, makes a wonderful coaster for a whiskey glass.)
The moral of the story? Within 24 hours I was able to make a silly EE move, see that I made that mistake, modify the original design to fix it, and then see and prove that I fixed that problem. Without this innovation, that same process could have taken weeks or even months.
After printing a successful board, I was able to write a driver on top of it to give the firmware engineers downstream of me an interface that they can now program against, helping them to understand how their firmware will interact with this chip when it's finally available.
From this simple exercise, every team member is now unblocked, and when it comes time for us to stand up the boards for the first time, all of the unknowns about the parts and the circuitry will have already been validated. We’re removing uncertainty early in the project and saving ourselves (and our client) a lot of time down the line.
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