Harvard Spin-off Voxel8 Takes 3D Printing Into Electronics

3D printers give hardware designers a way to convert their computer models into objects they can see and feel. A Boston-area startup has made a desktop printer that goes one step further: by printing wires, it allows designers to make working prototypes of their electronic creations.

Voxel8 today launched its website and has begun to take orders for a 3D printer that can make plastic three-dimensional objects with embedded electronic circuits. The company, which works out of the Greentown Labs incubator in Somerville, MA, plans to demonstrate the 3D printer at the CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas and start delivering it later in 2015. It prints plastic and conductive inks, which function as wires for electronic components.

Traditionally, electronic circuit boards are manufactured in standard shapes. With a 3D printer that can print a product and its electronic circuitry, a hardware designer can imagine different ways to integrate electronics into a device, says Voxel8 co-founder Daniel Oliver.

For example, wearable computers could have curved electronic boards or a hearing aid could be customized to fit a person’s ear. In a planned demonstration video, Voxel8 designers printed a fully functioning quadcopter, rather than just the shape. And because the wires to the motors are printed, the designer could rethink the geometry and avoid using a standard-size circuit board.

The other draw for designers is speed: the printer will generate a working prototype in one hour, compared to having one made in a few days, Oliver says.

The technology behind Voxel8 comes from the labs of Harvard University professor and material scientist Jennifer Lewis, who joined Harvard from the University of Illinois in 2013. Her work involves preparing materials for 3D printing for many uses, including medicine, but Voxel8 was spun out to pursue 3D-printed electronics.

“We felt that if we were going to embed with a 3D printer, the thing that would get the most function to start would be electronics,” Oliver says. “Electronics are basically in everything of high value and the way they are currently designed and manufactured doesn’t really make sense.”

The printer, which costs about $10,000, is squarely aimed at professionals, not hobbyists. Voxel8 is trying to get feedback from designers on how its printer functions and what good applications for printed electronics are.

The company, which only began developing a product in 2014, raised $50,000 through the MassChallenge business plan competition. It’s also raised about $2 million in venture funding, including an investment from Braemar Energy Ventures, Oliver says.

Voxel8 made its own printer but its core technology is in the preparation of materials, which start out as a liquid but hold their shape when forced out of a nozzle, Oliver explains. “The magic is really in tuning the materials and making them controllable,” he says. “It’s really the material science that drives all of this.”

Most 3D printing today is used to make prototypes for designers, hobbyists, or students. But the technology is also being used to make finished goods, such as metal components in jet engines.

In a video, Lewis says that 3D printing will radically change manufacturing in the next decade. “Rather than shipping components, you are going to be shipping CAD (computer-aided design) files and then you’re going to have local centers of manufacturing excellence, where these CAD files are just ported and then directly products come out,” she says.

For now, Voxel8 wants to focus on printing working prototypes and understanding in which industries 3D printed electronics make the most sense. “For 3D printing to push the limits of what’s done now, it has to solve key issues that current manufacturing technologies don’t,” Oliver says.

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