Accessible circuit design brings endless possibilities


January 7, 2015

Inside every iPhone, behind every piece of computer equipment and at the heart of everything in electrical and computer engineering, there's a circuit to carry electric current. From the simple to the complex, circuits are everywhere—and startup company AgIC is making it easier than ever to work with them.

Using silver nano-particle ink, AgIC produces felt-tip pens and cartridges for home inkjet printers to make circuit design and testing simple for engineering experts as well as novices. CMU alumnus Yuki Nishida, a 2014 graduate of the Information Networking Institute's MS Information Technology program, is one of the founders and currently head of the company's American office.

The pen can make live circuits on coated photo paper, and the printer works with coated photo paper or acetate. You can trace a simple line to conduct power from a source, such as a battery, to activate a small element like an LED when the circuit is completed. But when the path isn't drawn correctly, nothing works and you have to completely start over, which makes the cost of failure pretty high.

That's where the eraser pen, and a new Kickstarter campaign, come in. "What we hope to do is make people feel like making circuits is easy," Nishida says. Mistakes are very easy to make, especially when you're learning, he says, but an eraser that can remove small errors in circuits—hand-drawn or printed—makes it possible to edit circuits as you go.

AgIC's first Kickstarter in early 2014 was a success, and the current eraser campaign will run through January 13. In mid-December, it was more than two-thirds of the way to completing the $10,000 goal and had been chosen as a staff pick on the popular crowdfunding site.

Through Nishida's connections with CMU-SV, the project has received lots of support and exposure on campus. Faculty member Stuart Evans of the Integrated Innovation Institute, an expert on startup strategies and high tech entrepreneurship, has offered his guidance. Electrical and Computer Engineering Ph.D. student Irina Brinster has given her input on using AgIC for antenna designs, taking advantage of the pen's ability to change signals by adding to the lines.

Information Networking Institute students Yun Cao and Tomokazu Yoshida (MSIT-25) worked with AgIC on an independent study project in Fall 2014, supporting company's education and outreach programs and helping make new designs.

In the past year, AgIC has been offering demos and participating in events throughout the Bay Area to find new users and future engineers. Education is a big potential market, considering national initiatives to improve STEM education and computer programming opportunities for students. A simple, interactive tool like the AgIC pen is a great gateway project for engineering, as Cao and Yoshida saw at outreach events. "You definitely see it triggers interest in the kids," Cao says.

CMU-SV's Circuit Runner team used an AgIC pen and LED as part of their hackathon winning educational project in October. The students and volunteers have also run demos at San Jose's Tech Museum and at local exhibitions like the Maker Faire.

Adoption in the maker culture is another big market, also in line with growing national exposure and reflected in Carnegie Mellon's efforts to encourage makers. Used with a small controller like an Arduino, an AgIC drawing can connect with more complex components and devices—like as a touch sensor interface as shown on a video on AgIC's site, or to power a speaker.

Nishida sees a lot of potential in AgIC's future. He says they'd love to talk with the agencies planning ventures to Mars, since some of the major limitations on long-range space missions will be equipment and space. Like 3-D printers, this small, multitasking technology could take the place of larger, dedicated machinery.  

But they're also happy to see more people here on Earth getting interested first. "We want more people to start making and try different things," Nishida says.

Collaboration Note: Agic is the result of collaboration between faculty and students from Carnegie Mellon University in Silicon Valley, the Integrated Innovation Institute, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Information Networking Institute.

Story originally published at: