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The Voltera falls into the category of 3-D printing, but it is far from a simple hobby machine.

Kevin Fung

A group of University of Waterloo graduates has become the first Canadian winner of the international James Dyson Award, a prestigious engineering design competition judged by the British inventor.

The winning invention is called the Voltera V-One, a compact device that can print prototype circuit boards in minutes. Right now, when engineers are designing a circuit board, it can take days or weeks to get a prototype manufactured, and it usually involves a pricey minimum order of multiple units as well.

"I can't tell you how many times we faced the problem we set out to solve," says Alroy Almeida, co-founder of Voltera Inc., who is also preparing this week to ship the first early-bird units of the device to backers of the company's crowdfunding campaign. About two dozen of the machines are shipping to backers who helped the company raise more than $500,000 in February, 2015. An additional 300 are expected to deliver in early 2016.

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The Voltera falls into the category of 3-D printing, but it is far from a simple hobby machine.

"We've got customers now from all walks of life. In our early-bird backers, there's a professor at a local university. He's going to use it to run courses, and he runs an international electronics competition," Mr. Almeida says. "Pebble [the California-based smartwatch maker with roots in Waterloo] purchased an early-bird unit. They are looking to use it in their prototyping."

Production units are expected to cost in the $2,000 range, and come with the special conductive and insulating ink used to print the two-layer circuits. There's also a solder-paste dispenser, allowing other components to be attached to the board.

In the future, the company is looking to create a marketplace where Voltera owners can download existing circuit-board designs that they can add to or modify.

Mr. Almeida says the team found out it won via a video message from Mr. Dyson. In it, he says: "As an engineer, I know the frustration of waiting for circuit boards to be printed, and the Voltera elegantly solved this problem. And that's why I've chosen you as the International Winners of the James Dyson Award, well done!"

Mr. Almeida and co-founders Jesús Zozaya and James Pickard are mechatronics engineering graduates from Waterloo; fellow founder Katarina Ilic is a graduate of nanotechnology engineering.

Since 2008, the award has been won by British, American, Australian and German student projects. The winners get $45,000 (U.S.) and an additional $7,500 goes to their university.

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