Streamline PCB Development with the Voltera V-One!
Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are everywhere nowadays. Although most take it for granted, engineers and designers are plenty aware of the monumental effort behind the development and production of these circuits. Traditional PCB production involves complex machinery and high upfront …
Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are everywhere nowadays. Although most take it for granted, engineers and designers are plenty aware of the monumental effort behind the development and production of these circuits. Traditional PCB production involves complex machinery and high upfront costs, creating a necessity to outsource fabrication to specialised factories.
When it comes to lead times, it can take you weeks to receive a requested part, which is one of the biggest challenges in the electronics industry. Picture a product development process where no one can expect a designer to get it right in its first, second and even tenth iteration. Now, if you add PCBs lead times between each trial, the process becomes endless!
Thankfully, solutions have appeared in the market to address this issue, and Voltera is at the front of this trend. The Voltera V-One is an innovative and elegant device that enables a smooth, in-house PCB prototyping process. As the latest addition to Solid Print products, it is worth setting a guide to explain how the PCB supply chain works and how the Voltera V-One might become an indispensable asset in this ongoing development.
What are PCBs, and Why are They Essential Nowadays?
Printed circuit boards have made it possible to achieve complex electrical connections arranged in small places. For instance, computer motherboards hold most hardware components orderly and seamlessly without the need of dealing with an entangled wire mess.
So, PCBs are basically embedded wires forming trace patterns in a dielectric material sheet (Also known as substrate). The most popular materials for this are copper as the conductor and FR-4, which is based on fibreglass reinforced epoxy with unique insulating, thermal and mechanical properties.
Other critical aspects of PCBs are their layered composition and drill holes. The standard design comprises stacking layers, each with its own set of circuits. On the other hand, drill holes serve three main functions:
- Mounting holes to fasten screws
- Soldering external through-hole components
- Placing a via, which is a connector that extends through layers vertically
Although PCBs have been with us for a while, the demand to accelerate innovation is greater today than ever before. Just think how indispensable a smartphone can be today, not to mention how IoT (Internet of Things) devices are taking place in almost any activity imaginable.
Now, what does it take to make one?
Although we use PCBs for almost any electronic device today, we take for granted the feat behind embedding intricate connections compacted in a board with micrometric accuracy. Making circuit boards is, in fact, a very demanding process. Massive facilities with specialised equipment are necessary to implement a capable production line.
The overall workflow comprises significant upfront investments in machinery, tooling, shop floors and a large workforce. The standard way to go is:
- Design the circuit
- Generate a Gerber file (Through software, such as Eagle, Altium and KiCAD) containing all the required manufacturing data. For example, the number of layers, traceroutes, drill holes, outline cuts.
- Outsource for manufacturing
- Make iterations to your design
- Outsource again
The manufacturing process itself is impressive, but it would take way beyond the scope of this article to cover it. What really matters here is the challenges that electronics developers are facing.
For more information on PCB production, click here or watch the following video:
Challenges of PCB Production
Despite being such a common good, the obstacles behind developing PCB are paradoxically substantial.
- Costly Production Lines: Many processes like photomasking, chemical baths, drilling, CNC routing, solder masking require large installations. All of this without even mentioning all the equipment for control and inspection requirements.
- Outsourcing: The APAC (Asia-Pacific) region, mainly China, covers 90% of global PCB production due to cheaper labour costs.
- IP Concerns: Companies face serious risks of IP leaks by sending Gerber files to third parties.
- Shipping Costs: Not only are shipping fees troublesome but all the logistics, paperwork, and customs.
- Lead Times: The back and forth dynamic can extend development times for months.
- Environmental Concerns: The massive disposal of hazardous chemical waste, fume emissions, metallic dust and scrap.
- R&D: As electronic innovations improve incredibly fast and new design paradigms occur, a calling for agile in-house workflows is evident.
There’re many ways we could start describing this system; let’s start by pointing out that this is an additive process. Standard PCB production is, by nature, subtractive. You need to create a photomask and dissolve most of the copper involved in the procedure. In contrast, the V-One is much more straightforward since it only needs to dispense ink selectively as a 3D printer would do. Why wait several weeks if you can get a fully functioning circuit from your desktop in less than 3 hours?
This machine enables its users to either place a substrate board and work from scratch (3mm thick max) or work with a prefabricated one (Up to two layers). Its slick and elegant design provides a 128mm x 105mm print area that allows you to work from your desktop. Furthermore, there’s no need for fume management systems since the materials have low or inexistent lead levels.
We’ve got the most basic picture of what the V-One does with this. But, creating a PCB goes beyond just tracing conductive lines; what about drilling, soldering, assembling components? Well, the V-One has solutions for that!
One Machine, Multiple Functions, One Workflow
The Voltera V-One, beyond its printing capabilities, offers a comprehensive workflow in one place, starting with the Gerber file all the way to a fully assembled circuit.
Of course, every stage has its own set of tools and consumables. Thankfully, the magnetic heads systems enable an easy and fast swapping dynamic. Let’s have a quick look at each function.
Once the substrate is clamped in place, the first thing to do is to align the machine’s coordinates with your workpiece. To achieve this, you just need to place the probe head, and the software will register multiple contact points in a matter of seconds!
Desktop machines with additive and subtractive features are pretty rare, and this is such a case. This process is also fast. It’s as simple as placing the drill head with the drill size you need, then the software will do the rest.
After drilling, the interface provides you with the option to maintain the previous probing data or redo the process.
Now, the core functionality of this machine. The Voltera V-One uses an ink dispensing system that precisely controls the flow through an internal leadscrew. Voltera offers a catalogue of curable silver nanoparticle inks to cover various applications. Alternatively, you’re free to experiment with any other ink of your choice; they even provide empty cartridges to do so. The same goes for substrates. Beyond just printing on standard FR4 boards, there are many rigid, flexible and stretchable materials you can try, such as glass, ceramics, polyimide films like Kapton and textiles; possibilities are endless.
Just as you load your Gerber file, the software can quickly calculate all needed toolpaths. Just snap your print head and hit play. After the printing process is done, flip your board and let the 550W heater do all the curing work. If you want to keep printing the other side of the board, the probe head can position it by leveraging the drill hole positions.
Soldering and Reflow
Soldering electronics can be demanding, frustrating, and wasteful, either via stencils or soldering iron, potentially damaging components. In contrast, the Voltera V-One can automatically add solder paste with utmost precision. Afterwards, place your SMD components and let the heated bed do the paste reflow.
For application with vias, Voltera opted for a simple manual process. You just need to place some copper rivets through the holes; the riveting tools that come with this machine will help you do so.
Lastly, you can apply solder wire wherever is necessary, namely when assembling through-hole components.
Is the Voltera V-One for You?
It depends on your needs. It would be best if you considered some of this machine’s limitations:
- The silver-based ink is not as conductive as copper
- Desktop scale
- No solder masking or silkscreening
- You can’t print multilayered boards
If you aim to establish an end-use production or your circuit requires some of the aspects shown above, it’s better to go with traditional outsourcing.
Now, if your aim leans more towards R&D and experimentation, the Voltera V-One can become a crucial acquisition. There’re three main areas where you can comfortably invest in this machine: Product development, research and education. Notable academic institutions like Stanford, Oxford and Harvard have adopted this technology for studies and as teaching tools. Ultimately, the Voltera V-One is the ideal device to have in places like labs, universities and makerspaces; you can even prototype from home as an independent developer.