You know that dream you have where you wake up and a robot is removing circuit boards from your chest and printing in new one? No? That’s just me? Well, BotFactory is the precursor to that eventuality, and their technology is so convincing that they just raised a $1M Seed Round of financing through New York Angels, with New York Angels Director Larry Richenstein joining BotFactory’s Board of Directors.
BotFactory is a startup out of New York City and the team behind Squink, the first integrated desktop PCB factory. If you recall, they had huge success with their Kickstarter project, bringing in over $100,000 from 260 backers. Their machines are now on the market, available through their website and changing the way people think about prototyping electronics. But what does the machine actually do and who would use it? To answer these questions, we ask BotFactory’s JF Brandon for more details:
SolidSmack: Who are the people who would find BotFactory most useful?
JF Brandon: The most common customer is your R&D manager at a private company and is responsible for developing their newest products, exploring new markets or helping crack their customer’s biggest problems. They see how much PCB prototyping eats into their budget, and how the price of one Squink can in a stroke provide savings in both money and time. Iteration is a part of their lives, and reducing the design cycle time can be extremely helpful in materializing ideas and rapidly demonstrating their value to customers and management.
SS: How would you describe BotFactory to engineers/designers?
JF: BotFactory Squink is a fully functioning PCB Factory that can sit right at your desktop. Like a 3D printer, Squink can additively manufacture the conductive traces and dispense the solder paste or conductive glue onto many substrates, such rigid FR4 or flexible Kapton. Unlike a 3D Printer, Squink is capable of automated assembly – it can pick-and-place components like resistors, capacitors and ICs. With a BotFactory Squink in your space, you can take your GERBER files directly from PCB CAD tool and drag-and-drop them into our software and fab and assemble PCBs in less than an hour.
SS: Can you provide an example to help illustrate the process? (For example, I have a drone design idea. How can BotFactory help?)
JF: So if an Electrical Engineer was designing a circuit board for a drone, they’d be relying on Squink for their first rounds of prototyping. One big advantage of Squink is that you can print on multiple types of surfaces, like Kapton or plastic films like PEN (a varient of the pop bottle plastic PET). These materials are very light, which is valuable for drone designers. Flexible electronics are very expensive in small quantities, so prototyping with Squink is cost-effective.
An electrical engineer would design their board using your typical CAD tool like Altium or Upverter and follow our latest design guidelines on our website (10+ mil traces, >0603 parts, etc) and export them in the GERBER format. Then they would fire up their Squink, connect to it by ethernet or via a WiFi Router, open up their browser and type in http://squink.local into the address bar. The entire software package is on each Squink, and it is updated on a fairly regular basis with new features, improved UX/UI, better printing algorithms, improved speeds, etc. No need for the user to download any new software – it’s a plug-and-play device straight out of the box!
There are three interchangeable heads, each for a specific process. The printhead has a UV Lamp for curing the insulating layer, and in concert with a different cartridge can print the conductive ink traces as well. For printing a two-layer boards, the user would print a conductive layer, let it cure, then swap the cartridge out for an insulating ink cartridge and continue printing. For dispensing conductive glue or paste, we have a motor-actuated dispensing system that deposits tiny dots of material onto the solder pads. Once the user has completed printing and dispensing, they replace the dispensing head with the pick-and-place head, which has a motor for orienting components and a ‘vacuum tip’, which can pick up ICs and passive components. Squink has an upward-facing camera with a sophisticated image recognition software that can identify the edges of a part and ensure it is oriented the right way before placement. The final step is a heat-curing process, where the heatbed cure the conductive glue. If paste is employed, a reflow oven is required.
At this point, we don’t recommend using reflowable solder paste on Squink-printed boards – traces sometimes get damaged by the high temperatures of the reflow process. However, assembly can account for a large portion of PCB manufacture and prototyping, so it is possible to use Squink to digitally stencil an entire pre-fabricated PCB and pick-and-place all of the components. This is exactly how we’ve made all 120 Squinks we’ve sold, doing the assembly in-house. Technically, this makes Squink a self-replicating machine!
So, to wrap this up and put a bow on it, the Squink 3D Circuit Printer comes with three heads that cover the process of automating printed circuit builds:
The Inkjet Print Head prints low resistivity conductive ink to fabricate circuit traces on stiff or flexible substrates
The Paste Dispenser Head lays down solder paste or conductive glue on printed or pre-fab boards
Pick and Place
The Pick and Place Head uses on-board computer vision to pick your components from the tray and place them on the board.
The machine itself is small, measuring only 17.5″ x 17.5″ x 15″ (45 x 45 x 38 cm) and weighing 30 lbs (13.6 kg). It takes approximately 30 minutes to assemble a 4″ x 4″ PCB with 15 components at a cost of less than $5 (not including component cost).
It supports printing two types of low-resitivity ink – a standard ink at 50 mOhms/sq that prints on photopaper and coated transparency film that can withstand up to 1.8A on a 100 mil (2.5mm) trace, and a multi-layer advanced ink at 40 mOhms/sq that prints on FR-4 and Kapton that can withstand up to 1100 mA on a 15 mil (0.5mm) trace.
Three version of the printer are available, all include the printer and print/tool heads, starting with the basic package at $3199 ($2999 through Amazon!), with a full package for $3999 that includes the multilayer circuit capability upgrade, and a premium package for $4499 that includes the multilayer circuit capability upgrade and extended warranty.
Here’s an example of the Squink’s multilayer printing capability:
Disclosure: JF Brandon, the head of Sales and Marketing for BotFactory, has written articles for SolidSmack in the past prior to his position with BotFactory.
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