Feb. 18, 2016 | By Alec

Though metal 3D printing is largely unavailable to the ordinary hobbyist like you and me, there is at least one thing we can do to add a metal edge to our 3D printing projects. Way back in 2014, startup Functionalize brought electricity into the realm of 3D printing with their F-Electric highly conductive filament for PLA-based 3D printers. Since then, their filament has been used for a variety of cool and simple 3D printing projects, and they have shown us how simple it has become to add LEDs and other electronics into our prints. Remember these 3D printed Christmas tree ornaments? To prove that their filament is more than just a gimmick, they have just shared a tutorial for a fantastic Arduino-based WiFi-connecting color touchscreen project, in which all the wires and soldering have been replaced with 3D printing.

As they explain to 3ders.org, this project reflects a how this filament can actually add a whole new dimension to electronics design and assembly as well. And let’s face it, who hasn’t been looking at a DIY project that can benefit from an under $20 color touchscreen? “Designers can use it for a large variety of things from home automation, drone, or robot controller to IoT sensor display, or just UI and brains for Wi-Fi-enabled equipment, as we are doing,” they say.

This project is, they reveal, simply a logical next step in their own experimenting with F-Electric. “As we’ve learned through your projects and questions, any new material, while enabling new ways or things to make, also brings with it a new learning curve, especially when dealing with a large variety of 3D printers and ideas,” they say. “Recently, we decided to build some factory control equipment, and thought ‘what a great opportunity to put F-Electric to the test and maybe make an example in the process’.” Sensing that the time has come to take it to the next level, they designed this touchscreen with just a few parts: a NodeMCU board V1.0, a 2.4″ TFT Touchscreen Module and some conductive paint (as a replacement for solder)– the rest is all 3D printed, and you’ll need a bit of F-Electric filament.

If you’re interested, you can find the full tutorial here. There are just a few pitfalls to take into consideration, especially when it comes to design and slicing. By now, you’ll probably have your own slicing routine all worked out, but this doesn’t always work well on a scale of just a mm. “Unfortunately, the criteria for “most efficient” for most slicers is the best it can do without hopefully not messing up visuals too much. Combine that non-deterministic slicing with the standard .1” or 2.54mm pitch, or space between pins, which is the most common breadboard-friendly pin distance, and you have really no room available for printer or slicer optimization,” the Functionalize team says. This can result in tiny errors which cause in plugged holes or short circuits, and will require some careful designing. Eventually, this was solved by taking control of the print head path, for which you can find more details in the tutorial.

Another pitfall that usually doesn’t affect us hobbyists is crossing traces in 2D, which cannot happen on a circuitboard. To solve that, you’ll need to build 3D printable ‘bridges’ of about 1 mm, to cover the traces and ensure that the board does what it’s supposed to do.  If you’re still up for it, you can find two STL files for this project in the tutorial, one for a single head 3D printer and one for a double setup. Carefully follow the 3D printing instructions, which are a bit unusual for F-electric. It might also occur that the print isn’t conductive enough, something that can be solved by adding some conductive paint to the pads to optimize the connection. A silver paint is best used for that now, though Functionalize is also planning to release its own line of conductive paints.

Before assembly, you will have to wait for the print to dry properly. If you haven’t ever worked with an Arduino before, you’ll also have to install quite a few tools on your PC and Arduino, but fortunately Functionalize also provided a comprehensive list of everything you need. “You’ll want to do all this before the next step, because once you’ve assembled the device, you’ll need to disassemble it in order to flash it again through the micro-USB,” they say.

For assembly itself, it’s a simple matter of ensuring all the contact points get good adhesion, which can be achieved by putting a drop of conductive paint onto each pinhole. “No need to go overboard on filling the hole. First prepare the pinpads for the NodeMCU and put it into its socket in the orientation shown, pressing down firmly to leave 1mm of space and no more under the header. Next, prepare the pin pads for the touchscreen in the same manner and place the touchscreen into its socket in the same way,” they say. That’s really all there is to it. No wires, no soldering – one of the easiest and most impressive ways to build your own touchscreen.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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