Circuit Plotting With An HP Plotter

Over the last few years we’ve seen a few commercial products that aim to put an entire PCB fab line on a desktop. As audacious as that sounds, there were a few booths showing off just that at CES last week, with one getting a $50k check from some blog. [Connor] and [Feiran] decided to do the hacker version of a PCB printer: an old HP plotter converted to modern hardware with a web interface with a conductive ink pen.

The plotter in question is a 1983 HP HIPLOT DMP-29 that was, like all old HP gear, a masterpiece of science and engineering. These electronics were discarded (preserved may be a better word) and replaced with modern hardware. The old servo motors ran at about 1.5A each, and a standard H-Bridge chip and beefy lab power supply these motors were the only part of the original plotter that were reused. For accurate positioning, a few 10-turn pots were duct taped to the motor shafts and fed into the ATMega1284p used for controlling the whole thing.

One of the more interesting aspects of the build is the web interface. This is a small JavaScript app that is capable of drawing lines on the X and Y axes and sends the resulting coordinates from a server to the printer. It’s very cool, but not as cool as the [Connor] and [Feiran]’s end goal: using existing Gerber files to draw some traces. They’re successfully parsing Gerber files, throwing out all the superfluous commands (drills, etc), and plotting them in conductive ink.

The final iteration of hardware wasn’t exactly what [Connor] and [Feiran] had in mind, but that’s mostly an issue with the terrible conductivity of the conductive ink. They’ve tried to fix this by running the pen over each line five times, but that introduces some backlash. This is the final project for an electrical engineering class, so we’re going to say that’s alright.

Video below.

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PCB Toner Transfer Method, Now Without The Transfer

A common way to create a custom PCB at home is to do what is called the Toner Transfer Method. In this process, the trace layout of the board is printed out on a piece of special toner transfer paper that allows the ink to come off in the following step. The toner transfer paper is then put print-side-down on a copper clad PCB blank, heated and pressed with an iron. The heat and pressure from the iron transfers the toner from the paper to the copper. The exposed copper then is chemically removed, the previously applied toner protects the copper in the pad and trace areas. The toner is then removed using paint thinner.

That is a long process with many critical steps. [mlerman] wondered why no one was printing the toner directly to the PCB. He has been tinkering with printing directly on PCB blanks for 4 years now. He’s made hundreds of boards over that time and can now make a PCB in under 15 minutes.

The obvious route to take would be to modify a current laser printer to accept the much-thicker-than-paper PCB boards. A few printer models were tried but [mlerman] feels the Lexmark E260 works the best due to the cost, internal mechanical components and an easily modifiable manual feed system. There is also a Local Printer Utility that allows the majority of the printer parameters to be adjusted.

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Drilling PCBs with cameras and math

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After making your first PCB, you’re immediately faced with your next challenge – drilling the holes. It’s a doable task with a small drill press, but a lot of makers already have a small CNC mill or router, but how to make that work the first time? [Alessio] has you covered with a technique that uses a CNC-mounted webcam and some linear algebra for perfect through-holes the first time and every time.

A few months ago we saw [Alessio]’s work with transform matrices and PCB drills. The reasoning behind this technique is if a PCB isn’t exactly aligned to a CNC mill’s axes, or if the scaling for a toner transfer board is a bit off, automating the drilling process will only end in pain, with holes going through traces and a whole host of other nasty things. The application of linear algebra gets around this problem – taking a measurement off of two or three known locations, it’s easy to program a CNC machine to drill exactly where it’s supposed to.

[Alessio]’s new project takes the same mathematical techniques and applies them to a very sleek application that uses a drill-mounted webcam. After taping his homebrew PCB down to the mill, [Alessio] simply marks off a few known points, imports the drill file, and lets a computer calculate where to drill the holes. The results are remarkable – with a soldermask and silkscreen equipment, these handmade boards can be just as good as professionally manufactured boards,

There are Windows and OS X binaries for [Alessio]’s tool available on his page, with a video demo available below.

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Custom boards at home without etching

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PC board houses are getting more accessable and less expensive all the time. Some of us are even getting very, very good at making our own circuit boards at home. There are times, though, when a project or prototype requires an extremely cheap custom board right now, something etching a custom board won’t allow. [KopfKopfKopfAffe] has a unique solution to this problem, able to create custom boards in under an hour without any nasty chemicals.

Instead of starting his build with copper-clad board, [KopfAffe] used every rapid prototyper’s friend, simple one-sided perf board. The shape of the board was milled out on a CNC machine, and both the top silk screen and bottom layer were marked off using the toner transfer method. After that, a custom circuit is just a matter of placing components and putting solder bridges between all the marked pads.

[KopfAffe] is only using this technique for single-sided boards, but we don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be employed for simple double-sided boards. This would still have the problem of making vias between the layers, but that’s still a problem with proper, home-etched double sided boards.

Script lets you import Eagle boards for use in FreeCAD

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[Christian Aurich] wanted to use his Eagle CAD circuit board design in a proper CAD program in order to design enclosures. There are already a few options along these lines, but they didn’t quite fit his needs so he developed a script to import Eagle boards into FreeCAD. The script is packaged as a python macro for FreeCAD.

In describing the shortcomings of what’s already out there [Christian] does mention the use of EagleUp to model boards in Google SketchUp. But he feels the way the data is produced by SketchUp makes these models work well with 3D printing, but says they’re not easy to use with mechanical design CAD software. He also feels that the photo-realistic renderings are useless when developing enclosures.

It’s worth mentioning that this approach is only possible because CadSoft’s migration to XML makes it dead simple to get at the data.

Finding the cheapest board house

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The prices for custom made circuit boards has never been cheaper, but surprisingly we’ve never seen a comparison of prices between the major board houses. [Brad] took the time to dig in to the price of 10 boards manufactured by Seeed Studios, OHS Park, and BatchPCB. He made some pretty graphs and also answered the question of where you can get your circuits made cheaply.

[Brad] got the prices for boards up to 20 cm x 20 cm from Seeed Studio’s Fusion PCB service, OSH Park, and BatchPCB. These results were graphed with Octave and showed some rather surprising results.

For boards over 20 cm2, the cheapest option is Seeed Studios. In fact, the price difference between Seeed and the other board houses for the maximum sized board is impressive; a 400 cm2 board from Seeed costs $150, while the same board from OSH Park is close to $1000.

Of course most boards are much smaller, so the bottom line is  for boards less than 20 cm2, your best bet is to go with OHS Park. If you don’t care when your boards arrive, or you need more than 10 or so, Seeed is the way to go. As far as the quality of the boards go, OSH Park is up there at the top as well.

Laser cut PCBs

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Despite what you may have heard, those 40 Watt laser cutters actually can cut out traces on your next PCB.

Since he got his laser cutter a year and a half ago, [Rich] over at Nothing Labs has been trying to cut PCBs with it. Others have tried, usually by masking off a piece of copper followed by chemical etching. [Rich] wanted a one-step process, though, and his laser cutter really isn’t up to the task of cutting metal.

All that changed when he heard of another maker cutting  .001″ thick stainless steel on a similar laser cutter. Stainless steel isn’t solderable, but mild steel is. After finding a very thin piece of mild steel, [Rich] taped it down to a sheet of acrylic, designed a simple 555 blinky LED circuit, and tried out a new technique.

It turns out it is possible to cut very thin steel into circuit traces, and with enough flux to turn them into a functional circuit. As a bonus the resulting circuit looks really cool and a board can be made in mere minutes.

It’s not the thing for very fine work – the minimum trace width [Rich] can get is about 1/16″, but it is a very fast way to prototype a few circuits.

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