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Create a working circuit in 30 minutes

18 Aug 2014  | Lee Goldberg

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What would you do if you could turn the schematic you sketched on the back of a napkin during your lunch break into a fully-assembled circuit before your afternoon coffee break? What would you do if you could print a circuit, which monitored your vital signs onto a flexible circuit board which could be easily sewn into your workout clothes? These and many other "what-if?" scenarios may be answered by Squink, a $3,000 "screen-to-machine" desktop electronics factory, after it completes its recently-launched crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter.

BotFactory, the team which created Squink, is based in Brooklyn NY, the fashionably grungy appendix of Manhattan which birthed avant-tech start-ups like Adafruit Labs and MakerBot. The prototype they've built has already demonstrated how many of the same technologies commonly used in 3D printers can be adapted to print a circuit on a variety of materials, populate it with ICs and other components, and "solder" them in place with conductive adhesives.

 From back-of-napkin sketch to operational PCB in an afternoon!

Figure 1: From back-of-napkin sketch to operational PCB in an afternoon!

One glance at Squink is all it takes to see how much of its innards have been cleverly adapted from the 3D printer world. This is a good thing since it means that most of the design can take advantage of the low-cost, high-quality standard components, and vast amounts of open-source IP, which resulted from nearly a decade's worth of 3D printer development. In addition to increasing the design's reliability and manufacturability, I'm sure that using proven Maker technologies played a big role in allowing BotFactory to offer Squink units for $3,500-$3,999 during its Kickstarter drive.

 BotFactory's Squink

Figure 2: BotFactory's Squink—a desktop PCB factory

Both of Squink's X-Y stages use a ball screw drive system favoured by many 3D printers, with the element which would normally hold the print head moving along one axis, and the platform which holds the circuit board along the other. The tool head also moves in the Z direction. Instead of a 3D printer's print head, Squink has a tool holder, which can accept three interchangeable heads.

As shown in the video above, the first head deposits the conductive ink on the circuit board material, guides by either GERBER RS-274X files or uploaded PNG, JPG or BMP files. Once the conductors are laid, the conductive ink cartridge is swapped out for a conductive glue dispenser. Squink can use a standard soldermask file, typically generated by your CAD tool, to place dots of conductive adhesive at every place where a part will need to be connected. The third head is a vacuum pick-up assembly, which can be used to select a component from a holding tray and place it on the proper set of adhesive-primed contacts. If desired, the adhesive can be quickly set with an optional 15-minute heat-curing cycle.

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