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New metal lets today’s 3D printers make tomorrow’s electronics

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When entrepreneur Michael Toutonghi and his son wanted to make a rocket in their family basement, they went about it in a thoroughly modern way: though the duo wasn’t gearing up to produce their rockets by the hundreds, the production and assembly processes were still too tedious to be done entirely by hand. Well-versed in using 3D printers to assist rapid prototyping, the two Toutonghis set about automating as much of the process as possible, but their efforts hit a wall when it came time to do the electronics. Put simply, 3D printing could not do what they need it to do with the tools they had available. So, it was time to invent a solution.

The resulting Kickstarter campaign certainly makes big claims for itself: a new 3D printable metal that is exponentially more conductive than current materials, and which could finally let 3D printing decentralize design and manufacturing. Called F-Electric, the material — which can be used in the place of standard PLA plastic in a cheap 3D printer — reportedly exhibits less than one ohm-cm of resistance. For context, graphite’s resistance is about 0.001 ohm-cm, while an average competing conductive printing material might come in at 10,000 ohm-cm or more. As you can see, this offers an incredible step up from current solutions, and brings any PLA-capable printer within striking distance of much more expensive industrial printing tech.

Of course, there are already technologies that allow us to print electronics — they’re just either too primitive or too expensive to be useful. Previous electro-printers have used silicone infused with silver nanoparticles, or graphite pastes, but the costs are heavy and they aren’t always compatible with existing tech; a prior Kickstarter will run you ,500 just to get started. By contrast, any PLA-capable printer can print with F-Electric, which is currently priced at 0 per half-pound, or about 32 cents per gram. Current conductive materials go for as little as 15 cents per gram, but offer thousands of times lower conductivity.

The combination of high conductivity, low price, and easy application mean this could be a truly disruptive technology. The chemical properties of F-Electric are concealed for now, but its startup parent company Functionalize has a number of designs available to prove the product works. Its working LED key chain (pictured below) is interesting and cheap to make, but the fully 3D printed electromagnetic levitator probably drives the point home more powerfully: this stuff lets you print electronics strong enough to power hungry devices, not just tiny little LEDs.

The above number of 32 cents per gram is derived from the Kickstarter purchase price, but the whole point of F-Electric is to bring the price down. Bulk production of raw materials is not what you’d call an easy industry to enter, but with enough funding and an interested-enough fan base they should have no trouble attracting the sort of attention they need. In this respect, the project could be hampered by its platform agnosticism, which will relegate F-Electric to being an indie solution for the foreseeable future.

f-electric headPrinting in metal at construction qualities is still a bit beyond your average commercial printer — with this technology, it might be able to print out some contacts for a Raspberry Pi circuit but not a metal case case to enclose it. 3D printing is absolutely fulfilling its potential for the engineer and maker crowd, but it is definitely falling down in the types of real-world inventions it can bring into the home of a complete layman.

Something like F-Electric, though, could fundamentally move us forward from cabinet knobs (this time in steel!) and actually bring new types of objects to the digital maker realm. These are the kinds of breakthroughs that call back to that age-old question, “Would I download a car?” or, more to the point, would you download a house full of simple dollar store gadgets?

I think most of us would, and these steps forward are how we’ll someday be able to do it.

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“New metal lets today’s 3D printers make tomorrow’s electronics”