Although powerful design software and cheap manufacturing services have made rolling your own PCBs easier than ever, there are some situations where a piece of FR-4 just doesn’t cut it: think art projects with hidden LEDs or biomedical applications that need to attach to the human body. For such occasions, [Narjes Pourjafarian] and her team at Saarland University in Germany developed Print-a-Sketch: a handheld device that lets you print electric circuits on almost any surface using conductive ink. Also check out their academic paper (PDF).
The heart of the device is a piezoelectric print head, as used in some types of inkjet printer. It dispenses tiny droplets of silver nanoparticle ink, which is conductive enough to make useful electronic circuits by simply printing a schematic. Lines can be drawn to connect components, while customized footprints can hold LEDs, capacitors or even integrated circuits.
As demonstrated in the video embedded below, the Print-a-Sketch can be used in various different modes. In freehand mode, you can draw whatever you like just by moving the device around. But it also has several assisted sketching modes, where it can straighten out wobbly lines, draw multiple lines in parallel, or even print complete predefined shapes. Especially satisfying is the way it can draw resistors by literally printing zig-zagging lines.
Thanks to an optical motion sensor, similar to the ones used in gaming mice, the device knows at all times where it is and how fast it’s going. That enables the control circuitry to compensate for unsteady movement; the authors claim a printing precision of less than 0.5 mm. In addition, an RGB camera is used to detect the material underneath and adjust the amount of ink dispensed, depending on how absorbent the surface is: rough paper needs more ink to obtain a conductive trace than a ceramic tile.
The number of potential applications seems limitless: how about a yoga mat with integrated touch buttons to control the video player on your iPad? A piece of kinesiology tape with an integrated stretch sensor to measure the exact motion of your arm? Or a floor tile with a printed moisture sensor? All of these are demonstrated by the team, but we’re sure our readers can come up with many more ideas.
Of course, drawing circuits using conductive ink is not a new idea: previous projects either relied on drawing the entire thing by hand, or used traditional inkjet printers. But the Print-a-Sketch’s sophisticated hardware and software really put it in a league of its own. And since the entire design is open-source, you can simply build one and bring your ideas to life.