Skip to Content

Electronic Inks Make 3-D Printing More Promising

A startup called Voxel8 is using materials expertise to extend the capabilities of 3-D printing.
March 5, 2015

Three cofounders of Voxel8, a Harvard spinoff, are showing me a toy they’ve made. At the company’s lab space—a couple of cluttered work benches in a big warehouse it shares with other startups—a bright-orange quadcopter takes flight and hovers above tangles of wires, computer equipment, coffee mugs, and spare parts.

The quadcopter printed by Voxel8
The quadcopter printed by Voxel8.

Voxel8 isn’t trying to get into the toy business. The hand-sized drone serves to show off the capabilities of the company’s new 3-D printing technology. Voxel8 has developed a machine that can print both highly conductive inks for circuits along with plastic. This makes it possible to do away with conventional circuit boards, the size and shape of which constrain designs and add extra bulk to devices.

Conductive ink is just one of many new materials Voxel8 is planning to use to transform 3-D printing.

The new ink is not only highly conductive and printable at room temperature; it also stays where it’s put. Voxel8 uses the ink to connect conventional components—like computer chips and motors—and to fabricate some electronic components, such as antennas.

The company made the quadcopter by printing its plastic body layer by layer, periodically switching to printing conductive lines that became embedded by successive layers of plastic. At the appropriate points in the process, the Voxel8 team would stop, manually add a component, such as an LED, and then start the printer again.

Voxel8’s 3-D printer
Voxel8’s 3-D printer.

The toy looks like something that could be made with conventional techniques. The real goal is to work with customers to discover new applications that can only be produced via 3-D printing. A video the company made to show off its technology starts by asking: “What would you do if you could 3-D print electronics?” While the founders have some ideas, they really don’t know what the technology is going to be particularly useful for.

Voxel8’s business plan is to start by selling the conductive ink and a desktop 3-D printer. The machine is designed primarily to produce prototypes, not to manufacture large quantities of finished product. The company’s long-term goal, however, is to create industrial manufacturing equipment that can print large numbers of specialized materials simultaneously, which will enable new kinds of devices.

The founders will draw on a large collection of novel materials—and strategies for designing new ones—developed over the last decade by cofounder Jennifer Lewis, a professor of biologically inspired engineering at Harvard (see “Microscale 3-D Printing).

One of Lewis’s key insights has been how to design materials that flow under pressure—such as in a printer-head nozzle—but immediately solidify when the pressure is removed. This is done by engineering microscopic particles to spontaneously form networks that hold the material in place. Those particles can be made of various materials: strong structural ones that can survive high temperatures, as well as epoxies, ceramics, and materials for resistors, capacitors, batteries, motors, and electromagnets, among many other things (see “Printing Batteries”).

“The long-term possibility is almost endless numbers of materials being coprinted together with superfine resolution,” says cofounder and hardware lead Michael Bell. “That’s far more interesting than printing a single material.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This new data poisoning tool lets artists fight back against generative AI

The tool, called Nightshade, messes up training data in ways that could cause serious damage to image-generating AI models. 

Rogue superintelligence and merging with machines: Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist

An exclusive conversation with Ilya Sutskever on his fears for the future of AI and why they’ve made him change the focus of his life’s work.

Data analytics reveal real business value

Sophisticated analytics tools mine insights from data, optimizing operational processes across the enterprise.

Driving companywide efficiencies with AI

Advanced AI and ML capabilities revolutionize how administrative and operations tasks are done.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.