Prototyping electronics the inkjet way–to come soon

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Home inkjet printer fabricates circuit boards on photo paper | ComputerWorld

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There have been a few methods for building electronic-circuit prototypes which involved a “breadboard” of some form and having the components anchored down with either mere friction, with wires inserted in a spring or screwed down with a screw and washer. This was either used to teach electrical and electronics concepts or to “rough out” an electronic-circuit idea and having it work properly before spending time on building a printed circuit board for permanent deployment.

Now Microsoft have come about with a method of making printed-circuit boards using the common inkjet printing method that most printers (including a lot of the ones reviewed here) implement. Here, users could design a circuit using a regular computer and print this out on the photo paper. But the inkjet printer would have to be equipped with a cartridge that holds a special conductive ink and think it is printing something in black and white.

You could then think that you have to solder down the various regular components like diodes, resistors, capacitors and transistors, punching their wires through the paper. But this could prove to be difficult with heat-based soldering and wires attached to the components. Instead, Microsoft and 3M are implementing “stick-on” components that are conductive through the tape as a way to build the circuit that work in a similar way to a SIM card where there is conductive areas on that card.

There would be the requirement to use card-grade paper for improved mechanical reliability as well as the ability to connect regular wire to these circuits whether to connect regular batteries, switches and the like or connect between two circuits. Another issue would be to provide the conductive-ink cartridges for most of the currently-issued inkjet printers so that one can get going with using these printers for turning out the printed circuit boards.

But what I see of this is that equipment used by most computer users could come in to its own with learning electronics or building electronics circuits, especially “short-order” circuits. At the moment, the idea hasn’t been commercialised but the kind of people who could make it sell would include the educational sector or electronics shops of the Maplin, Jaycar or Radio Shack kind.

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