Last year a small start up from Brooklyn, New York named BotFactory had their first taste of success on Kickstarter as they crowdfunded their first product, a desktop PCB factory called Squink. The Squink uses 3D printer technology to let users print working circuit boards using conductive inks or fabricate circuit traces on a variety of substrate materials. It also has a toolhead that allows users to lay down solder paste, conductive glues and even complex pick-and-place custom-shaped circuits and electronic designs. The Squink is run using web-based software that lets it know exactly what it’s printing, placing or gluing so users can make their own low-cost PCBs quickly and efficiently.
One of the key pieces of technology for Squink is the Pick-and-Place toolhead that uses suction to latch on to a component. Like a tiny vacuum, the toolhead sucks up any of the small parts used to build a complicated PCB and hold it firmly in place until it can be manipulated and placed properly. You’d think that a small vacuum nozzle would be an easy thing to develop, but as the BotFactory team found out, sucking was much harder to do than they thought it was. The company’s COO wrote a guest post on the Shapeways Blog detailing his company’s problems developing their 3D printed toolhead, and how Shapeways 3D printing services became the solution to a fabrication problem that they couldn’t solve.
When BotFactory first launched they used 3D printing to manufacture many of the components on the Squink because it was an efficient and inexpensive way to scale their production based on consumer demand. In the early days they thought that they could use their single MakerBot Replicator 2X to produce all of their parts, but reality quickly set in. It took COO George Kyriakou and the rest of the BotFactory team months to tweak the designs and printer setting enough to produce quality parts, with one exception. The pick-and-place head simply wasn’t producing enough suction to pick up the parts that it would need to. It turned out that the cylinder that held the motor, the suction tube and the syringe tip in place couldn’t be made airtight with a standard desktop 3D printer.
“Like every manufacturing technique, 3D printing works best when the designer constrains the design to meet what the 3D Printer can do. To that end we iterated, iterated and iterated; and then iterated some more and then a little bit more in order to produce a part that is functional, has good tolerances, low failure rate during 3D printing, and a good mechanical stability.
However, with your classic FDM 3D Printer (like MakerBot) you often have small gaps that allow air in from the outside, reducing the potential vacuum. We added multiple shells, placed a high infill percentage, etc. but nothing seemed to work well enough. We had hit a roadblock. We couldn’t mill it either – the part was too complex and would probably be very expensive. Ditto with Injection Molding. What was I supposed to do?” Kyriakou wrote in his blog post.
When Shapeways was suggested to him, Kyriakou got an order placed within fifteen minutes, and the troublesome printed component was in his hands within a week. Not only was Shapeways able to combine two parts of the cylinder into a single part, but the final part was stronger than the FDM printed part and produced twice as much suction. So the new part worked exactly as intended, and in fact actually allowed the Squink to pick up and place parts much larger than BotFactory had even considered. And as much as they tried, the team couldn’t manage to break the part.
“Our order contained three pieces: one for show, one for testing and one to be sacrificed to the gods of rigidity. Following the same scientific approach as the bendgate, that little thing was impossible to break! Next check in line was the Luer lock. The insertion was smooth and easy and it felt very precise. Despite the minuscule size of the pitch, the syringe tip locked tightly in place. The final check was the barbed connector. The silicon tube slid easily into place and the barbed connector came out so sharp that indeed it was very hard to remove, providing us with the insulation we needed,” Kyriakou continues.
Take a look at the blog post over on Shapeways, it’s a great read and perfectly illustrates one of the areas that is going to be very important to the 3D printing industry in the next few years. If a company can successfully manufacture 95% of their parts with standard desktop 3D printers, then it simply doesn’t make sense to purchase an industrial quality machine to produce the other 5%. Having access to companies like Shapeways, or other local 3D printing service providers, could produce higher quality products and actually give struggling startups a fighting chance to get their products on the market.
It isn’t possible to overstate the importance of small companies having access to easy to use and inexpensive 3D printing services bureaus. The fact is desktop 3D printing will probably never be able to replace the need for industrial quality manufacturing technology, which is produced using 3D printers far too expensive for a startup to afford. Having access to service companies that can produce high-quality parts is going to be a vital part of the future of product development and new products developed by startups.