circuit scribe

what it does

Circuit Scribe is a rollerball pen that writes on normal paper with non-toxic conductive silver ink. It makes creating electronic circuits as easy as doodling.

why i made it

Back in 2011, I was working on my doctorate in Jennifer Lewis's group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Among other things, Dr. Lewis's research focuses on the directed assembly of soft functional materials, including conductive inks and technologies for making circuits using conductive inks. Analisa Russo and several of my colleagues in that group published a paper in Advanced Materials about how to formulate silver nanoparticle conductive inks for dispensing from a normal rollerball-type pen.  We actually first bought off the shelf Bic pens and washed them out before iterating and finding the ideal pen - the Sakura Gellyroll metallic pen.  My research also focused on looking at ways of making conductive inks for industrial-scale applications—manufactured flexible electronics and so forth.

In 2013, Electroninks Incorporated was formed to commercialize industrial scale inks for a number of different clients.  All this work was under NDA so later that year we decided to launch a consumer product, Circuit Scribe, to better advertise the company as well as provide a useful tool for educators and the maker community.  We did a Kickstarter for Circuit Scribe that went viral and ended up getting funded at almost 800% of our goal; we were asking for $85,000, and actually took in nearly $675K! We hit two out of our three stretch goals and were able to deliver not just the pens and kits we'd promised, but an online educational platform for Circuit Scribe enthusiasts as well as a special magnetic sheet that goes under the paper and makes it easy to interconnect your conductive art with your kit components. 

how i made it

In the beginning we were buying off-the-shelf Sakura Gelly Roll Metallic pens, cleaning them out with compressed air and ethanol, then reloading them, by hand, with ink that we synthesized in small batches in the lab. Now we get empty pens directly from Sakura and still fill them by hand - we should have a pen filling machine soon but our volumes are low compared to an industrial operation.  All the conductive ink is made in house at our Austin facility.

who i worked with

Besides myself and Dr. Lewis, who's a co-founder, there are four of us on staff at ElectronInks Writeables, Inc. Analisa is also a co-founder and is in charge of product development, including the content of our educational materials and the curriculum for our workshops. Michael Bell is our fourth co-founder and COO; he designed the electronic component modules in our kits and has set up and overseen production of those. Nancy Beardsley is our tech support and community management expert; she's spent many long hours communicating with our Kickstarter backers, wrangling logistics, and beating her head against our order management software. Finally there's Valerie Nogueria, our product designer, who is working on developing logic modules and a new kit, as well as running Circuit Scribe workshops around the country.  We also have several dedicated interns who help us get more content made quickly.

what i learned

The biggest challenge was probably scaling up production from the in-house level where we started. When we could mix the ink and load the pens in our own lab, we had direct control over the quality and the timetable. When you start out-sourcing, though, you have to coordinate a bunch of different companies all over the world, in tandem, which introduces a lot of potential complications. We worked very hard with all of our suppliers to make sure our quality was a finished product and not just a quick iteration for the kickstarter backers.  It took a little longer this way, but I'm pleased with the result. 

what's next

Commercially, we're working on getting our kits into brick-and-mortar retail chains as well as various educational markets. On the technical side, we've got a new kit in the works. We're also in the final stages of R&D for color-coded "resistor pens" based on the standard resistor color code. We know how to change the conductivity of our ink by changing the ratio of conductive fillers to nonconductive ingredients, so we might have a black pen with a resistance of 10 ohms per written centimeter, a red pen that gives 100 ohms per centimeter, and so on up to green, which would be 100 kilohms per centimeter. This was our final Kickstarter stretch goal, and though we didn't quite get there funding-wise, it's still something we plan to release soon.