We had read about the eForge desktop electronics 3D printer from Alabama based Electronic Alchemy some time ago. However, we tend to remain skeptical of extrusion – especially multi-material extrusion – desktop systems that make big promises in the world of electronics so we decided to wait and see what would happen.
On the occasion of our new AM Focus on Electronics 3D Printing, we decided to take a closer look at the company’s progress and something seems to be moving in the right direction. Last July, Electronics Alchemy released the version 1.0 eForge printer, which is now ready for testing. The 0.6 version of the printer, was delivered to NASA, one of the project’s sponsors, at the end of June. The version 1.0 will be Electronic Alchemy’s first commercially available printer, and it will be going on pre-sale on October 1st.
The 1.0 prototype printer’s primary elements, shown ibn the image below, include a moveable, heated platform bed (front and center) the extruder block (top right) and the LCD touch screen (top center).
The extruder block on the eForge is characterized by a unique structure that features 8 extruders, allowing for simultaneous printing of up to 8 different materials with independently controlled temperatures, up to 300°C.
The print bed on the eForge is auto-leveling. It can support heating up to 120°C and achieve a Z-axis accuracy of 1.35 microns. The surface of the print bed is plate glass. The back of the printer is where up to 8 spools of filament material can be attached. Each filament spool is independently controlled and linked to an individual extruder.
Testing 1, 2, 3…
The current eForge prototype printer is capable of printing up to three materials at once. The full production model of the eForge version 1.0 will be capable of printing up to eight different materials at once. The filaments are approximately 4 mm in diameter and consist of the various proprietary mixtures for printing electronic devices.
Electronic Alchemy use Autodesk Tinkercad, another one of the project’s supporters, to layout the design for devices that will be printed with the eForge. A a set of Tinkercad’s colors has been associated to the six primary materials required to print electronics. These are:
- Red – conducting
- Green – insulating
- Grey – resistive
- Yellow – capacitive
- Blue – n-type semiconducting
- Purple – p-type semiconducting
In the demo print, the goal was to design a simple capacitive driven pressure sensor and to print it with the eForge, then run a simple experiment to show its performance. This pressure sensor is a two-material device, which is an ideal device to demonstrate the capabilities of the printer. For this device gray and yellow were used on the Tinkercad layout. After the layout was completed, the resulting OBJ file was exported to a slicer program where each portion is associated with an extruder on the printer. The G-code is then produced by the slicer program.
eForge-ing the sensor
The G-code files were saved onto a USB drive and could then be selected from the touch-screen interface, just like in any desktop printer. The first layer of resistive material was then printed into the desired shape. The middle section of the capacitive material followed and finally, the top layer of resistive material was added.
The complete device is finally cooled and extracted from the eForge. It has roughly a 20×25 mm surface area and is about 5 mm thick. The entire print took about 9 minutes to complete.
Once completed the sensor was tested by applying a +/- 5 volt 10 kHz square wave signal across the device as the input while measuring the output voltage across the larger pad, which essentially makes up the capacitor.
This demonstration shows just one of the many potential applications for devices that can be printed with the eForge. The Electronic Alchemy team expects to continue testing this and subsequent prototypes, sharing additional printing demonstrations.
Judging by this first test print, the road ahead to actual, functional products may be a long one but functionality is even more important than looks at this point and we do hope that the eForge will meet with better fortunes than other affordable electronics 3D printing systems that have come before it.