Checking Populated PCB Clearance with a 3D Printer

Laying out one PCB, sending it out to a fab, stuffing it with components, and having the whole thing actually work when you’re done is a solved problem. Doing the same thing and having it plug in to another PCB… well, that’s a bit harder. Forget about building a PCB and having it fit inside an enclosure the first time.

The usual solution to this problem is printing the board to be fabbed on a piece of paper, take some calipers, and measure very, very carefully. Extra points for sticking a few components you’re worried about to the paper before lining the mechanical prototype up to the existing board. [N8VI] over at the i3 Detroit hackerspace had a better idea – print the whole thing out on a 3D printer.

[N8VI] is working on a software defined radio cape for a BeagleBone. He was a bit concerned about a few caps getting in the way of a board stack. This was tested by printing out a bit of plastic in the shape of the new board, adding header spacers and parts that might be troublesome.

While the idea is great, there’s not much in the way of a software solution or a toolchain to make plastic copies of completed boards. We know rendering 3D objects from KiCAD is rather easy, but there aren’t many tools available for those of us who are still stuck with Eagle. If you know of a way to print populated boards, drop a note in the comments.

Parts.io Aims at Better Component Discovery

Online parts search and ordering is a godsend compared to the paper-catalog days of yore. This is fact, there is no argument otherwise (despite [Dave Jones’] assertion that sourcing connectors is so much simpler if you have pages full of images). Just being able to search was a game changer. But how far do you think the concept has come since the transition online? [Chris Gammell] plans to spark a leap forward with Parts.io, an electronic component info delivery system that spans both manufacturers and distributors.

So what’s wrong with what we’re doing now? Nothing… unless you hate wasting time. Sourcing parts is time consuming. Certainly the parametric search on distributors’ sites like Mouser and Digikey have improved. Plus we’ve seen hacks that do things like automatically pull in stock data to a spreadsheet. But the real issue isn’t figuring out how to buy stuff, it’s figuring out what to use in a design. Surely there is opportunity for improvement.

Parts.io has its sights set on a better path to part discovery. Yes, this is parametric search but it will return data for all parts from all manufacturers. The distinction may not be completely obvious, but for example if you are searching on Element14 you’re only getting data on the parts that Element14 carries. Once you have drilled down to a reasonably manageable pool of components you get what you would expect: one-click datasheets and a roundup of pricing and availability from worldwide distributors. The presentation of the parts is grouped into families that differ in trailing parts designators, and I must say I am impressed at the interface’s ability to roll with you. It feels easier to find alternative parts after the drilldown where in my past searches I would have started completely over again.

The service started in private alpha in October but is now available for public use. You can search for a part without logging in, but a few features have been held back for those that sign up for a free account. Most notably this includes the ability to upload your BOM, add parts as favorites, and access their forums.

Is this a game changer? That’s for you to decide. You can give it a try yourself or watch [Chris’] feature walkthrough video found after the break.

Continue reading “Parts.io Aims at Better Component Discovery”

Touring Component Markets in Shenzhen

touring-component-markets-in-shenzhen

[Al] recently returned from a trip to China. While there he toured some of the component markets in Shenzhen, the electronics assembly epicenter of the world. While he doesn’t focus too closely on what is actually being sold there, we found his description of the markets themselves and other notable attractions around the area quite interesting.

Shenzhen is different from some of the other component wonderlands we’ve heard about ([Ian Lesnet’s] tour of Akihabara in Japan comes to mind). First of all it may be a bit more difficult to get there. US Citizens need a Visa to enter China, and must fly to Hong Kong and take a ferry to the mainland. [Al] reports that the traffic is horrendous and rush-hour can turn a ten mile ride that usually takes ninety minutes into a three hour tour… a three hour tour!

The side affect of the market being out of the way is that the prices aren’t as inflated as they may be in more geek-tourist-friendly locations. That being said it also sounds like the vendors are interested in selling you a few thousand units rather than a single component. Follow the link at the top for the market tour, a stop at Seeed Studios (who will apparently sell you a map of the best markets to visit), and the rest of the attractions that [Al] encountered.

Desoldering chips with fire

chips

Salvaging components is a staple of any electronic enthusiast, but many times those interesting chips – old 8-bit microcontrollers, memories, and CPUs found in everything from game consoles to old computers – are rather difficult to remove from a board. [Ryan] over on Instructables has a rather interesting method of removing old SMD packages using nothing more than a little fire and a pair of tweezers.

Obviously the best way to go about salvaging SMD components is with a heat gun, but lacking the requisite equipment, [Ryan] managed to remove a few SMD chips using rubbing alcohol as a heat source. In a properly controlled environment, [Ryan] filled a small metal dish with alcohol, set it on fire, and used the heat generated to remove a few components. Alcohol lamps are a common bench tool in a range of repair disciplines because the fuel is cheap and burns relatively cleanly (not leaving an unwanted residue on the thing you’re heating).

It’s an interesting kludge, and given [Ryan]’s display of desoldered components, we’re going to call it a success. It might also work for through-hole components, allowing for easy removal of old SRAM, ROM, and other awesome chips.

Parts storage for all your components

When [Steve] saw that we requested reader’s solutions to storing hundreds of different components, he had to send in his solution to storing bunches of ICs, resistors, transistors, and other components.

Like most of the suggestions we’ve seen, [Steve]’s solution relies on #10 envelopes stored in boxes specifically designed for holding envelopes. While there’s nothing new about storing handfuls of ICs in envelopes, we really like [Steve]’s method of organization.

On the top of each envelope, [Steve] printed a bunch of very useful information including the type and kind of part, the tolerance, speed, voltage, and package information. Also included are the manufacturer and vendor part numbers, making reordering a breeze.

Of course printing out hundreds or thousands of envelopes with this information would be a pain. [Steve] got around that by automating the process with iWork, typing in the values for each field in a spreadsheet app and using Mail Merge to print them all on envelopes.

It’s a very neat system that forced [Steve] to have all his parts on a spreadsheet, inching ever closer to a complete inventory management system. He’s thinking about adding QR codes to the envelopes to make reordering parts trivial, but after figuring out how to send hundreds of envelopes through a printer, we can understand if [Steve] wants to be a little lazy from here on out.

Building up an inventory of SMD parts

Once you’ve been tinkering around with electronics for a while, you’ll realize the through-hole components that make breadboarding a circuit so easy won’t cut it anymore. Surface mount parts are the future, and make it incredibly easy to build a semi-professional mockup at home. The question arises, though: how do you store thousands of surface mount parts smaller than a grain of rice?

As [George] was building up his SMD inventory, he came across a few clever solutions. The first was a binder sold by Adafruit (and others) that holds strips of cut tape SMD components. [George] wanted something a little more modular, and when he came across an eBay auction for 5000 0805 resistors and 3000 0805 caps, he needed to find a storage solution.

[George] ran across these tiny modular boxes while shopping at Adafruit. These boxes are completely modular, interlock with each other, and have a hinged lid that will hopefully prevent the eventual, ‘SMD parts everywhere’ spill everyone his likely to have.

After printing out some labels for his boxes, [George] had a very tidy solution to his SMD organization problems. We’re wondering what other Hackaday readers use to organize their parts, so if you have a better solution send it in.

[ch00ftech] Visits a Shenzhen Market

On a business trip, [ch00ftech] visited a Shenzhen electronics market and documented the trip. Some of the attractions included multiple Apple stores of questionable authenticity, stores selling PC components with no manuals, drivers, or packaging, and a variety of LEDs and lasers.

[ch00ftech] showed off the loot from the trip, including breadboards, perf boards, LED matrices, and an RFID reader all for very low prices. There’s also the Class 4 laser pointer that cost about $120 and has a power output of “between 500 mW and 8000 mW.” Given the 500 mW power restriction on lasers sold in the US, it’s fair to say that this thing should be handled with care. Hopefully the included safety classes actually block the specific wavelength of the laser.

The staff in these stores were very knowledgeable and knew part numbers and inventories by memory. One of the biggest surprises was just how low the prices were.  While Radio Shack has started to carry some more parts for hackers, it seems that nothing stateside can compare these Chinese electronics markets.