Jun 17, 2023

Hands On With The Voltera V

Creating your own PC board is a rite of passage for many. These days, though, you can order super inexpensive boards and have them in very little time, so it doesn’t always make sense to build your own. Still, some people like the challenge, and others don’t want to wait even a few days. Probably everyone has dreamed of a 3D printer-like machine that would just crank out beautiful PCBs. The Voltera V-One isn’t quite at that level of sophistication, but it isn’t too far from it. [Great Scott] shows us how he built two different boards using the system in the video below. While the results were impressive, you can also see that there are several limitations, especially if you are not designing your board with the machine in mind.

One thing that is obvious is that the machine does need your help. In addition to aligning holes, you’ll need to install tiny rivets for vias and slightly less tiny rivets for through-hole components. The last time we looked at the machine, it didn’t do holes at all, but [Scott] shows the drill attachment which allows the machine to produce vias and support leaded components.

The system relies on interchangeable heads and conductive inks. Mechanically, it doesn’t differ much from a 3D printer. The ink, however, appears to be a little temperamental. On the first test board, one side did not cure properly since [Scott] forgot a step. While it looked fine, it had problems soldering. Because the traces are not copper, the machine comes with its own recommended solder, too.

The most interesting part, though, was when [Scott] tried to port an existing board into the system. He had to make several changes for things like copper fills and via hole sizes. Close spacing required some hand rework, so he probably should have spaced the traces wider in the design.

The printer isn’t cheap and the consumables are rather expensive, too. It is hard to justify the cost just to get fast prototypes that aren’t very representative of a final board. Keep in mind the conductive ink isn’t as conductive as copper and you don’t get niceties like solder mask or silk screening. If you had an active hacker space, a school, or a busy lab it might be worth it to get one-off boards. However, for prototyping production boards, it is unlikely that you’ll want to constrain your final design to the restrictions necessary for the printer. Besides, if you don’t mind waiting for boards — keeping in mind that you can pay to get boards made and shipped quickly if you don’t mind paying more — the breakeven point on the printer is very high.

On the other hand, 3D printers used to be expensive and now they are everywhere. The quality of 3D printing isn’t as good as some other production methods, but it still has a place. So if this technology improves a little and gets a lot cheaper, it could find its way to your workshop one day.

Back in 2015, we predicted that making your own PCBs was getting harder to justify. At the time, many people were unhappy with that prediction, but further decreases in the cost of having boards made for you continue to chip away at the value proposition of making your own boards. Sure, sometimes you just want to do something despite the economics — we’ve all done that. But it does make the economics of PCB printers even harder to work out.