Traditionally, if you need to create a circuit, you’d use a breadboard for testing, then do a short run with an electronics manufacturer. It costs about $50 or so to and 3 days to make a single board from an online service. If you want 10, you might be able to get each for $40. But, what if you could make a board that would otherwise cost $300 online for $20 in components. If you need 5 or 10 of them, this idea really starts to make a lot of sense. Not everyone needs this. But imagine that there is a thinigiverse of electronics online and you could just download the CAD files, purchase a kit with the surface mount components and have most boards for just $20. It’s the idea of democratizing electronics with the reprap community the way that manufacturing is being democratized with 3D printing. It’s no longer necessary to set up costly manufacturing for every company. Now you can start small with 3D printing and scale when it makes sense.
I imagine one day that the poor will someday be able to print out their own high quality homes and electronics. It may take a while to get there. But the idea that anyone could produce just about anything easily and cheaply means that each one of us will be that much more capable and able to solve the problems that we face as a species.
The original idea for the machine was described here in the reprap forums. But the idea has continued to evolve. We’ve successfully hacked a laser printer to print unfused toner to make it easy to transfer the toner to a PCB without ironing. The original idea was to use a cylindrical arm design, but we’ve now concluded it’s not worth the trouble and that we should continue to use the XYZ stage designs that are typical of 3D printing. This means we can combine a 3D printer with the ability to make electronics!
The goal is to make a reprap that is not only able to print in plastic, but is able to create and test it’s own RAMPS board in under an hour!
The idea of home printing PCB’s has been tested by only a brave few before, such as here and here. However, no one has achieved an easy and reliable electronics maker yet, and they have only just begun discussing the inclusion of pick and place. These machines typically cost many thousands and are only used by industry. The only other way is to do it manually.
In addition, the technique we’ve developed for using laser toner is much cheaper than using photo resist. Pre-sensitized PCB boards that can be developed with UV light are very expensive. Using toner reduces the price so that it becomes more attractive to use this technique for small to medium production runs.
A typical pick and place machine requires reels of components. But when you’re not making that many boards, using reels makes no sense. We’ve devised a method by which you place the components for the board on the table and the robot recognizes the components where they are. This reduces the complexity and size of the robot, while making it possible for larger groups to add reels to the setup and use that technique just as well.
What we are trying to do is put the ability to make electronics quickly and cheaply on a small scale into the hands of anyone for around $1000. We think that could revolutionize how electronics development and production is done.
I’ve also been considering to make the XYZ robotic stage easily re-programmable and reusable for other things, like making your coffee in the morning. This would allow people to tinker with robotics more easily and dive deeper when they are ready.