Researchers have invented a way to integrate breadboards — flat platforms widely used for electronics prototyping — directly onto physical products. The aim is to provide a faster, easier way to test circuit functions and user interactions with products such as smart devices and flexible electronics.
Breadboards are rectangular boards with arrays of pinholes drilled into the surface. Many of the holes have metal connections and contact points between them. Engineers can plug components of electronic systems — from basic circuits to full computer processors — into the pinholes where they want them to connect. Then, they can rapidly test, rearrange, and retest the components as needed.
But breadboards have remained that same shape for decades. For that reason, it’s difficult to test how the electronics will look and feel on, for example, wearables and various smart devices. Generally, circuits are first tested on traditional breadboards, then put onto a product prototype. If the circuit needs to be modified, it’s back to the breadboard for testing, and so on.
The team 3D-printed objects with the structure and function of a breadboard integrated onto surfaces. Custom software automatically designs the objects, complete with distributed pinholes that can be filled with conductive silicone to test electronics. The end products are accurate representations of the real thing but with breadboard surfaces.
The CurveBoards preserve an object’s look and feel, while enabling designers to try out component configurations and test interactive scenarios during prototyping iterations. The researchers printed CurveBoards for smart watches, helmets, headphones, and a flexible, wearable e-reader.
A core component of the CurveBoard is custom design-editing software. When a 3D object is uploaded, the software essentially forces its shape into a “quadmesh” where the object is represented as a bunch of small squares, each with individual parameters. In doing so, it creates a fixed spacing between the squares. Pinholes — which are cones, with the wide end on the surface and tapering down — will be placed at each point where the corners of the squares touch. For channel layouts, some geometric techniques ensure the chosen channels will connect the desired electrical components without crossing over one another.
Objects were 3D-printed using a flexible, durable, nonconductive silicone. To provide connectivity channels, a custom conductive silicone was created that can be syringed into the pinholes and then flows through the channels after printing. The silicone is a mixture of silicone materials designed to have minimal electricity resistance, allowing various types of electronics to function.
CurveBoards are not designed to replace breadboards; rather, they work particularly well as a “mid-fidelity” step in the prototyping timeline, meaning between initial breadboard testing and the final product. Right now, a new CurveBoard must be built for each new object. Ready-made templates, however, would let designers quickly experiment with basic circuits and user interaction before designing their specific Curve-Board. Additionally, they want to move some early-stage prototyping steps entirely to the software side. The idea is that people can design and test circuits — and possibly user interaction — entirely on the 3D model generated by the software. After many iterations, they can 3D-print a more finalized Curve Board.