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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Birth of an Arduino

Hey look, an Arduino without its clothes on. This one’s just started its journey to becoming the ubiquitous prototyping tool. The image is from [Bunnie’s] recent tour of the fab house where Arduino boards are made.

As it says on every true Arduino board, they’re made in Italy. [Bunnie’s] trip to the factory happened in Scarmagno, on the outskirts of Torino. The process starts with large sheets of FR4 copper clad material, usually about 1 by 1.5 meters in size. The first task is to send the sheets through a CNC drill. With all of the holes done it’s time for some etch resist; the image above is just after the resist has been applied. A robotic system takes over from here, running the panels through the chemicals which first etch away the copper, then remove the resist and plate the remaining traces. From there it’s off to another machine for solder mask and silk screen.

There are videos of each step available. But our favorite piece is the image at the end that shows a pallet with stacks of completed PCB panels which are headed off to be populated with components.

[via Reddit]

Glass PCB LED clock

This clock looks fantastic because of the glass PCB used for the build. This banner image allows you to see all the traces and components, but when it is lifted off of the desk surface the LEDs which make up the 7-segment digits appear to be floating.

The concept isn’t new, but it’s a much larger format than we’ve seen before. When we first looked at [CNLohr’s] glass PCB fabrication he was using microscope slides. This uses a much larger pane of glass but it seems the fabrication still uses copper foil glued to the glass, then toner transfer etched like normal.

Here he’s testing out some 74LV164 chips as constant current drivers. One of the commenters on the Reddit thread is skeptical about using the chip in this way and so are we. But as the video after the break shows, it seems to work (at least for now). [CNLohr] also mentions that the AVR soldered on the display is burnt out which doesn’t help his case. Still, we love the look and can’t wait to see where he goes from here!

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Vapor phase reflow soldering

Ditch that old toaster oven and move to the next level of surface mount soldering with this vapor phase reflow method. [Ing.Büro R.Tschaggelar] put together this apparatus to use vapor phase reflow at his bench instead of sending out his smaller projects for assembly. It uses the heating element from an electric tea kettle to boil Galden HT 230 inside of a Pyrex beaker. There’s a copper heat break part way up the beaker to condense the chemical and keep it from escaping. When a populated board is lowered into the heated chamber, the solder paste reflows without the need to stress the components with unnecessary heat. Better than traditional reflow? At this level it’s hard to say, but we do find his method quite interesting.

[Thanks Chris]

Art piece from board artwork

[Theo Kamecke] is an artist who produces striking pieces using printed circuit boards. We’ve seen PCBs used as faux stained-glass before, but [Theo’s] craftsmanship stands apart from everything we’ve seen. His webpage has at least one piece that sites the usage of vintage 1960’s circuit boards, but we wonder if he doesn’t design some of these to suit his work. Either way, we’d love to see him take on the finish work for that mechanized expanding round table we saw back in June. See more of his work on his photostream.

[Photo Credit]

[Thanks Mowcius]

Tools: Proxxon drill press TBM115/TBM220

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A decent drill press is a crucial tool for an electronics lab. We use our drill press to make holes in our own circuit boards, and tap or break traces on existing circuit boards. We’ve used a lot of tools to drill circuit boards — power drills, power drills in “drill press stands”, and high-speed rotary tools — but when we started doing projects on a schedule, it was time for something more reliable.

We first spotted the Proxxon TBM115/TBM220 drill press in the window of a local shop.  Its tiny size and adjustable speed seemed ideal for drilling circuit boards. At $200, this is one of the pricier tools in our lab, but quality bearings and smooth drilling action aren’t cheap.  Read about our experience with this tool below the break.

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