It’s Time to Finally Figure Out How to Use KiCAD

KiCAD has been making leaps and bounds recently, especially since CERN is using it almost exclusively. However, while many things are the same, just enough of them are different from our regular CAD packages that it’s hard to get started in the new suite.

[Chris Gammell] runs Contextual Electronics, an online apprenticeship program which goes from concept to assembled electronics covering everything in between. To take the course you pay a nominal fee, but [Chris] posted a very excellent ten-part video series made during the last run of classes which you can watch without charge. The videos go through the basics of KiCAD while hitting the major points to consider when designing and manufacturing your electronics.

The project [Chris] chose is a simple circuit that blinks an LED with a 555. The first videos cover navigating KiCAD’s component schematic editor and library system. Next comes creating circuit schematics and component footprint creation. [Chris] covers PCB layout, the generation of Gerber files, and finally ordering the design from OSH Park — the purveyors of purple boards we’ve come to know and love. The series finishes up with simulating the circuit in LTSpice, ordering the parts, and finally soldering and debugging of the board. If all goes correctly you should now have a single blinking LED.

If the bright summer sun is burning your delicate skin, and you’d rather be locked inside with solder fumes, add this to your watch list now!

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i2c Relay Expander Uses Nifty Card-Edge Connection

[Andrew Sowa] wanted to use an off-the-shelf relay board from Numato Labs. The board lacks a suitable computer interface, which meant that [Andrew] would have to build one, and its input connectors are screw terminals, which meant a lot of wiring. Undeterred, he created an i2c expansion board using an MCP23017 I/O port expander, and with a novel card-edge designed to mate with the screw terminals, solving both problems at once.
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Hackaday Prize Entry: DIY Ceramic PCBs

We’ve seen hundreds of ways to create your own PCBs at home. If you have a laser printer, you can put traces on a piece of copper clad board. If you have some hydrogen peroxide and acid, you can etch those traces. Don’t have either? Build a tiny mill and cut through the copper with a Dremel. Making your own PCBs at home is easy, provided your boards are made out of FR4 and copper sheets.

Printed circuit boards can be so much cooler than a piece of FR4, though. Ceramic PCBs are the height of board fabrication technology, producing a very hard board with near perfect electrical properties, high thermal conductivity, and a dielectric strength similar to mineral transformer oil. Ceramic PCBs are for electronics going to space or inside nuclear reactors.

For his entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize, [Chuck] is building these space grade PCBs. Not only is he tackling the hardest challenge PCB fabrication has to offer, he’s building a machine to automate the process.

The basic process of building ceramic PCBs is to create a sheet of alumina, glass powder, and binder. This sheet is first drilled out, then silver ink is printed on top. Layers of these sheets are stacked on top of each other, and the whole stack is rammed together in a press and fired in a furnace.

Instead of making his own unfired ceramic sheets, he’s just buying it off the shelf. It costs about a dollar per square inch. This material is held down on a laser cutter/inkjet combo machine with a vacuum table. It’s just a beginning, but [Chuck] has everything he needs to start his experiments in creating truly space grade PCBs.

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DIY PCB Fixture Helps You Spread the Paste

(Yeah, we don’t know what that title means either.) But holding your PCBs down in one place and nicely registered while you spread solder paste over them is a problem that needs solving, and [Carsten] did it nicely.

High volume PCB manufacturers have expensive screen printers to do this. The standard hardware hacker solution is to tape some scrap PCBs of the same thickness down to the table to hold the PCBs solidly in place. But if you’re doing a large run, and if you’re already firing up the laser to cut out mylar stencils, you might as well cut out some PCB-holding fixtures to match.

[Carsten]’s blog entry is short on details, but you get the idea just from looking at the picture, right? Adding registration pins to the holder that engage with the stencils could make this a real time-saver as well. As long as you’re lasering the stencil and the holder, there’s nothing stopping you. It’s a simple idea, but a good one, so we thought we’d share. Our only remaining question: what’s a Karate Light?

TV Stick Out-Raspberries Raspberry Pi

Android-based TV sticks should be in more projects. They are readily available and inexpensive. They have a lot of horsepower for the price, and they can even boot a mainline Linux kernel, unlike some single-board computers we know. They’re smaller than the Pi Zero, so they’ll fit almost anywhere.

The one thing they don’t have, though, is I/O. Sure, it’s got a USB port, but that’s just about it. [Necromant] considered these problems and created a carrier board that fixes all that.

  • On-board 3A DC-DC. You can power the whole thing with anything from 7 to 24 volts DC
  • A 4-Port USB hub
  • An ATtiny 2313, connected to the hub via the V-USB stack
  • 2 USB ports on the back, with power control via GPIO lines
  • One USB port on the front (with power always on)
  • 3 relays
  • Fits a common anodized aluminum enclosure

The ATtiny code is on GitHub and allows for full I/O control, saving the state of the pins in EEPROM, and providing up to eight channels of servo control. The device connects through the USB port (consuming one port on the hub).

Repurposing consumer gear for embedded service is nothing new. We’ve seen it with phones. We’ve even seen remotes used as a mouse. But this is such a nice template for adding cheap and easy computing power to your projects that we’re surprised we don’t see it more often. Why aren’t you hacking a TV stick into your projects?

Tools of the Trade – Component Placing

Recently we started a series on the components used to assemble a circuit board. The first issue was on dispensing solder paste. Moving down the assembly line, with the paste already on the board, the next step is getting the components onto the PCB. We’re just going to address SMT components in this issue, because the through hole assembly doesn’t take place until after the SMT components have gone through the process to affix them to the board.

Reels!
Reels!

SMT components will come in reels. These reels are paper or plastic with a clear plastic strip on top, and a reel typically has a few thousand components on it. Economies of scale really kick in with reels, especially passives. If you order SMT resistors in quantities of 1-10, they’re usually $.10 each. If you order a reel of 5000, it’s usually about $5 for the reel. It is cheaper to purchase a reel of 10 kOhm 0603 resistors and never have to order them again in your life than it is to order a few at a time. Plus the reel can be used on many pick-and-place machines, but the cut tape is often too short to use in automated processes.

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A Low-Cost Mini PCB Printer

The next great advancement in homebrew electronics is an easy way to turn copper clad board into functional circuit boards. This has been done since the 60s with etch resist pens, sheets of etch resist rub-on transfers, the ever-popular photocopy and clothes iron, and now with small CNC mills. It’s still a messy, slow, and expensive process. [johnowhitaker] and [esot.eric] are trying to solve the latter of these problems with a mini PCB printer made out of DVD drives.

Playing around with the guts of a DVD drive is something [john] and [eric] have been doing for a while now, and for good reason. There’s a lot of interesting tech in DVD drives, with motors, steppers, and gears able to make very, very accurate and precise movements. Most PCBs aren’t very big, either, so a laser cutter that can only traverse an area a few inches square isn’t that much of a downside in this case.

With a small diode laser mounted to a CNC gantry constructed out of DVD drives, the process of making a PCB is actually pretty simple. First, a slurry of laser printer toner and alcohol is applied to the board. Next, the laser on this PCB printer lases over the traces and copper fills, melting the toner. The board is removed, the excess toner wiped off, and the unwanted copper is melted away. Simple, even if it is a little messy.

Of course this method cannot do plated traces like your favorite Internet-based board house, but this does have a few advantages over any other traditional homebrew method. It’s cheap, since CD and DVD drive mechanisms are pretty much standardized between manufacturers. It’s also easy to add soldermask printing to this build, given that soldermasks can be cured with light. It’s a very cool build, and one that would find a home in thousands of garages and hackerspaces around the world.

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