Alum’s 3D printer with electronics capabilities grabs CES 2015’s attention
SOMERVILLE, Mass. — There’s little sign that the Voxel8 team is just back from impressing visitors to this month’s Consumer Electronics Show — they’re working as intensely as ever in their tight, chaotic lab space in start-up community Greentown Labs.
But talk to co-founder and software engineering lead Jack Minardi (EE’12), and the excitement becomes apparent.
Voxel8’s custom-electronics-producing 3D printer is already a darling of tech media – attracting attention from sites such as Wired and Popular Mechanics. Fast Company named it one of The 9 Best Ideas from CES 2015. It represents a giant leap in a technology that’s already making giant leaps.
Jennifer Lewis, the Harvard University engineering professor who invented the 3D electronics printer, neatly summed up all the buzz. In the past, 3D users could get anything they wanted, she told Wired, “as long as it’s made of plastic.”
Her printer uses silver ink to print electronic components inside the plastic. It produces entire, working pieces in one run.
Already, Voxel8’s version can make a working four-propeller drone. Future applications will include custom hearing aids printed with the electronics already inside plus other wearables, such as Fitbit-style pieces customized with the look and features users want – GPS, steps and Wi-Fi, among others.
Minardi’s work has been crucial for the advances, Lewis said this week.
“He had the expertise in software engineering that my research group at Harvard sorely lacked,” she said. “He brings considerable expertise and energy to our team. I am thrilled to be working with him.”
A Dayton, Ohio, native, Minardi said a visit to Vanderbilt University’s campus sealed his decision to earn his bachelor’s degree there. He also liked that it wasn’t specifically a technical school, so he made friends across various programs and took a lot of film classes.
And although Minardi was an electrical engineering major, he took lots of programming classes – both required and not – and found himself designing “little throwaway utilities” just for fun.
After graduation, he accepted a job with Enthough Scientific Computing Solutions in Austin, Texas, working on a team that designed software for a scanning electron microscope. On vacation, he visited a high school friend who was a Ph.D. candidate working in the Lewis Lab at Harvard and was surprised to see the software being used.
Realizing his skill set could make a difference, Minardi emailed Lewis and offered to help. She hired him as a post-graduate research fellow at Harvard.
He applied for and was accepted to a Vanderbilt School of Engineering Ph.D. program starting in the fall of 2014, but by the end of summer, it was clear to Minardi that Voxel8 would be big. He agreed to defer Vanderbilt and come along as Voxel8’s cofounder, moving to the company’s space at Greentown, an office and lab building on a suburban Boston side street. The outside entrance belies the vast, bright-green-painted rooms inside, where employees of 50 startups sit at rows and rows of computers or work in little cubbies of lab space, sharing tools and knowledge.
The key to Voxel8 is a paste with silver particles that comes out in the consistency of peanut butter but dries like any other metal component. The plastic and silver nozzles alternate their work, sliding out of the way and cleaning themselves on brushes when not in use.
Right now, the technology can create circuit integrated chips down to the 800 micron pitch – or pin-to-pin distance – which are common in many components. That allows for custom circuit boards made in 30 minutes instead of days, and they’re less expensive.
“Beyond that – and what people need to wrap their mind around – is that we can do embedded electronics inside any form, which is not possible with any manufacturing technique today,” Minardi said.
As a result, he said, the first big market for Voxel8 will be prototyping shops. The printer could pay for itself with two design projects.
The company is set to start shipping printers at the end of the year, with standard models selling for $9,000, including a supply of polylactic acid (PLA) and silver ink.
Before Voxel8, Minardi distinguished himself by winning the February 2013 Y-Combinator hardware hackathon. He led a six-person team to victory in under 10 hours with a prototype for a force-feedback glove – dubbed Tactilus – that allows the wearer to feel objects in virtual reality, such as grasping a sword.
Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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