Board "printer"?

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Board "printer"?

Post by troed » Wed Jan 17, 2018 4:49 pm

I've never designed a circuit board, yet, but I've been looking at the Voltera pcb printer. I would like to get some input from those of you who regularly make board designs and send away for manufacturing how useful you believe it would be to have one for seldom prototyping and low-number manufacturing. The big caveats in my mind seems to be that it doesn't drill and that it's maximum two layers.

(I'm not really looking at the economic aspect, just as when I bought my 3D printer I don't ever expect it to "make money" .. just be a very useful tool)

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Re: Board "printer"?

Post by czietz » Wed Jan 17, 2018 7:54 pm

First off: I don't have any personal experience with this Voltera printer, nor do I know anyone who does.

However, simply by looking at their website, I see some points that I would not like about it:

- As you already said, it cannot drill. Back when I made PCBs myself (by conventional wet etching), I found drilling the holes to be the most tedious task. Also note that drilled holes alone don't make vias. A commercial PCB manufacturer will plate the through-holes. With boards that you drill yourself, however, you also have to make the connection between top and bottom layer for every single through-hole. Either by soldering a short piece of wire, by using special rivets, etc. Considering that a complex board will have at least dozens of vias, you'll spend quite some time doing that. Also, from my experience, you start making suboptimal routing choices (for example in terms of EMC) just to avoid to do even more vias.

- You also don't get silkscreen for component designators, marking which way a component must be mounted, etc. Don't underestimate how helpful a silkscreen on the PCB is.

- For hand soldering of the Voltera-printed boards, e.g. for through hole components or when your boards need to be reworked, you can only use their special low-temperature solder alloy. Other solder alloy (or even a soldering iron that is too hot) will damage the tracks on the PCB. They also hint themselves that the solder will not spread as well on their boards as on regular PCBs with copper traces.

- I wonder how good desoldering will work, for example when you have to replace a defective component -- this happens while experimenting. Since you are not allowed to heat a solder joint for more than 30 seconds (otherwise it gets destroyed) you have to be really quick with the solder wick.

- Conductive ink usually has a very limited shelf life. The Voltera ink is no exception, six months maximum according to their FAQ. Unless you make a lot of boards, you'll probably end up throwing away expired half-full ink cartridges.

- You depend on Voltera for the consumable supplies such as ink and solder paste. If they get out of business, your printer becomes an oversized paper weight.

- Finally, I know you didn't want to take about the commercial side; but you can have literally thousands of PCBs made in China (incl. drilling, plated through-holes, silkscreen and shipping) for the cost of a Voltera printer.

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Re: Board "printer"?

Post by exxos » Wed Jan 17, 2018 9:46 pm

I have seen that printer a fair bit in the past on websites etc. Just seems like a glorified "wire wrap" kind of tool to me.

For my boards, I use dedicated gnd and 5v layers, so I need a "slab" of copper, such things are not going to be really viable with that printer.

Plus points mentioned above about vias etc. Same with re-working, the whole idea of a prototype is likely it will be a mess very soon, hacks and such.. If you can't do that, then it defeats the idea of a prototype IMO. Sure can printer another one.. but its a waste..

In terms of just getting boards made in China, small boards cost very little. Think of it like $1 per square inch. so even a 2x2" board is only $4.

For larger boards, $1 per inch soon ramps up into huge costs, even more so on multilayer boards. so actually getting a main fab house to make them while costs a lot, you can get like 10+ boards for the same cost as 1 charged per inch.

Overall, if you want do print boards yourself, then invest in a CNC machine. You can do 2 layers on copper-clad boards. You will have to make via holes a bit larger on the pads, drill them, wire link though them. Its how I used to do my prototypes (not with CNC etch tank etc)..

It really depends what you ultimately want to create. If you are using DIP type parts, then sure a CNC will be fine.. but if your looking into SMT and smaller traces, then go with a "per inch" type fab house. PITA with the waiting all the time.. but can get "rush" services, but cost soon ramps up again.
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Re: Board "printer"?

Post by troed » Thu Jan 18, 2018 8:37 am

Thanks guys - points well made and it was just the type of input I was looking for. I will not buy one ;)


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Re: Board "printer"?

Post by dhedberg » Fri Jan 19, 2018 9:12 am

troed wrote:
Thu Jan 18, 2018 8:37 am
Thanks guys - points well made and it was just the type of input I was looking for. I will not buy one ;)
I've bought all my PCBs from EasyEDA:

I found their prices great and the quality of the boards has been overall very high, and most important of all, they offer a DHL delivery option for about $25 (price depends on the number of boards and the board size). You'll have your boards in about 3-6 days from the time you place your order. If you're in no hurry, you can go for the cheaper China Air option. You will have you boards in 2-8 weeks, or never. ;-)

All I want to say is that considering how cheap it is to buy professionally produced PCBs today I see no reason to invest in something like a CNC machine or board printer.
Daniel, New Beat -

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