This is a dynamic compilation of Frequently Asked Questions on the Argentum project.
- 1 What is the minimum size (of trace / gap) that the printer can print?
- 2 What surfaces can the printer print on?
- 3 What chemicals does the printer use and are they dangerous/hazardous?
- 4 What inkjet cartridges does the printer use and will I be able to refill them myself?
- 5 Why do you use inkjet cartridges?
- 6 How much can I print with one cartridge?
- 7 How much will refills cost?
- 8 Can I solder to circuits printed with the printer?
- 9 How much does shipping cost?
- 10 How does the software work/how do I import PCB designs into the program?
- 11 Does the software let me import GRBL files?
- 12 Does the software support MAC/Windows/Linux?
- 13 Will you be releasing a stand-alone attachment that I can use with my 3D printer?
What is the minimum size (of trace / gap) that the printer can print?
The printer has a resolution of 600 DPI and we've tested making tracks/pads down to SOIC components (pin spacing of 1.27mm) very reliably on lots of different substrates (paper, FR4, plastic etc.). The achievable feature size largely depends on the material being printed on. Non-porous substrates lend themselves to finer resolution.
We're currently testing some upgrades to the original prototypes that were featured in our Kickstarter. Those original prototypes could repeatedly achieve a minimum gap width of 0.6mm and the thinnest track was designed as 0.2mm. This allows you to print footprints such as 0603, SOIC, SOT23 to name a few. We also printed a TSSOP footprint but we were lucky because the centre pins of the chip were connected in the design so it made it a bit easier.
The biggest barriers to improving this seemed to be stability in the print-head and the chemical make-up of the ink (mostly water content). To improve this before we ship, we are redesigning the linear bearing system, tweaking acceleration profiles, maximum velocities etc in the print code and performing lots of tests on different ink compositions.
We're confident this will increase the resolution to easily print TSSOP components (0.635mm pitch spacing implying approximately 0.2-0.3mm gap width) and hopefully a little smaller. We will make blog posts, forum posts and update the Compatible Footprints page as we determine the final resolution capabilities.
What surfaces can the printer print on?
We have successfully printed onto paper, kapton plastic, fabric, acrylic, and stickers. There are many more surfaces that we’re yet to explore, and we’re hopeful to add to this list very soon. Keep an eye on the Substrates page for updates.
What chemicals does the printer use and are they dangerous/hazardous?
The printer uses Silver Nitrate and Ascorbic acid. Silver Nitrate has been used in applications such as photography for centuries, and while we wouldn’t recommend serving the ink up with dinner, the finished circuits are safe to handle. Ascorbic acid is nothing more than vitamin C.
What inkjet cartridges does the printer use and will I be able to refill them myself?
The Argentum uses off-the-shelf cartridges that can be found online and assembled at home, if that’s what you’re into. We’ll also be selling cartridges ready to go, so you won’t have to worry at all, and can get straight to the printing. Check out here for more information.
Why do you use inkjet cartridges?
Inkjetting is the only technology that is both ready and cheap right now. Research into other technologies is ongoing, but these are not yet production-ready let alone within a maker’s budget (unless you have a spare ten grand).
How much can I print with one cartridge?
It really depends what you’re looking to do! Ink usage comes down to:
- What resistances you require (digital communications needs more ink, blinky LED widget requires less ink)
- What substrate you print onto (paper is porous so requires more ink for equivalent conductivity, FR4 is not porous - needs less ink for the same circuit)
- How 'solderable' you need the circuit (generally a bit more Silver makes it a little easier to solder to).
The amount of 'ink' that will be in each cartridge hasn't been 100% decided upon either because we want to pack as much ink in as possible BUT we don't want you to lose a big investment if you accidentally lose or damage your cartridge. With our test cartridges, we've printed dozens and dozens of test circuits onto many different substrates without depleting a cartridge.
How much will refills cost?
We’re working hard to build an advanced manufacturing process and a secure supply chain for cartridges so that we can offer them to you as cheaply as possible. We haven't got pre-ordering for cartridges available just yet purely because we don't know exactly how efficient we can make our refilling system. We're currently prototyping some automatic rinsing and chemical filling machinery. If we can make this reliable, we can make cartridges a lot cheaper. As soon as we can predict how much it costs us to manufacture a cartridge set, the product will be available for pre-order at the web store.
Rest assured, we haven't released the product for pre-order yet specifically because we want to provide them as cheaply as we can - we aren't looking to monopolize the market to push prices up, we know that doing this hurts you, hurts us and hurts the whole community.
Can I solder to circuits printed with the printer?
Absolutely! You can solder with an iron, hot air reflow, or even use conductive glue (which we’ve included in the Macgyver Kit for you). What works best will depend on the surface you’re printing on, and we encourage you to experiment.
How much does shipping cost?
Free to most of the world, $50USD to the rest. See Shipping for full details.
How does the software work/how do I import PCB designs into the program?
We wanted to be able to support a wide range of design programs, so all you need to print with is an image file. You can export these from your favourite PCB software (such as Eagle or Altium), or you can even make them yourself in Paint. The software will let you configure all sorts of settings before exporting commands to the printer, including tessellation, weaving, and layer size. The Argentum can print from a SD card or stream from your computer, just like your 3D printer. More details will soon be available at the ArC page.
Does the software let me import GRBL files?
Not directly. The software only accepts image files at the current time, and any software which can create GRBL files should be able to export these easily.
Does the software support MAC/Windows/Linux?
Definitely! You can run our software on OS X, Windows, or Linux. The only prerequisite is Python (along with some common Python packages). This means that you can run the printer off a Raspberry Pi if you want.
Will you be releasing a stand-alone attachment that I can use with my 3D printer?
We're still contemplating developing this because it would obviously mean we can get the technology to a lot of people for cheaper and with less manufacturing on our side. Unfortunately there's still a few problems associated with performing this, such as interfacing to the inkjet drivers from many different 3D printer drivers, designing mounts that are compatible with many different printers (without colliding with anything else and still providing a reasonable print area), stability in a 3D printer head (that wasn't designed to take the increased inertia and more distributed weight of the cartridges and mount).
Initial testing was performed on gantry systems very similar to most 3D printers but it was found that the larger mass and increased size of the cartridges/mounting led to a very unstable tool-head. This led to vibrations during prints, decreasing resolution and increasing wear on bearings and mounts.
We're yet to decide whether or not we will produce a product like this that the open source community can help to develop further simply because we don't think it will be good enough. The Argentum, however is something that we're building from the ground up tailored entirely for it's purpose of printing circuits. So just for now, we want to focus on making the Argentum as good as it can be without the restrictions of a pre-existing platform.