Why are You Still Making PCBs?

Few things have had the impact on electronics that printed circuit boards (PCBs) have had. Cheap consumer electronics would not be as cheap if someone still had to wire everything (although by now we’d be seeing wiring robots, I’m sure). Between removing the human from the wiring process and providing many excellent electrical properties (at least, on a well-designed board), it isn’t surprising that even the cheapest examples of electronics now use PCBs.

For many years, the hallmark of being a big-time electronic hacker was the ability to make your own PCBs. There have been many ways that people have tried to bring PCB manufacturing into the hacker’s garage: stick on decals, light-sensitive blank PCBs, and even using laser printer toner (that last one spurred me to write a book on PCB layout many years back). You also see a lot of people using 3D printers or CNC mills to create PCBs. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me how to make a PCB in a home or small business lab.

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Hackaday Links: September 20, 2015

Here’s an offer from Intel and the guy behind all of reality TV [Mark Burnett]: win a million dollars for making something. Pitch an idea for wearable electronics to the producers by October 2, and you might be on a reality TV show about building electronics which they’re calling America’s Greatest Makers. With this, Intel is promoting the Curie module a tiny, tiny SoC with Bluetooth, IMU, and DSP functions. We’re of the opinion that a Hackaday reader should win this contest, or at the very least be featured prominently in the show. No, it’s not Junkyard Wars, but it’s still a million dollar prize.

[Jeremy] builds bombs clocks, and he has a Kickstarter for an interesting Nixie clock. Most Nixie tubes have digits, but [Jeremy] is using the IN-9 ‘bar’ tubes for the hour and minute hand.

The Luka EV is a semifinalist for the Hackaday Prize, and a completely open, road legal electric vehicle powered by hub motors. It also looks really, really cool.  Now, they’re selling them. It’s €20,000 for a complete car. Did I mention how cool it looks?

Boca Bearings is having a ‘Show Us Your Workshop’ contest, with the best (or should it be worst?) workshop winning tool cabinets, tool kits, a work mat, and calipers.

The EMU Drumulator is a classic drum machine that featured dirty 12-bit drum sounds in ROM. Now, it’s a single chip thanks to [Jan]. He’s done a lot of great work putting synths in single chips, and it’s great to see him move on to classic drum machines.

Offered without comment, here’s a ride through a PCB.

CNC’ed Business Card

Hobby CNC mills have made rapid prototyping easier and faster for hackers. One really useful application is quickly fabricating your own milled PCB’s. [proto logical] built a Reference PCB Business Card using his CNC mill after repeatedly coming across other hackers who were not too convinced about the capabilities of CNC mills in routing PCB’s (also referred to as isolation milling). He thought of making a business card sized reference PCB to show around when he bumps into such folks.

To keep it useful, he included inch and centimetre scales, 0.1″ grid of holes, reference track widths from 16 mil to 66 mil, a few common drill holes and vias and some SMD foot prints. The single sided board is 50 mil thick, so it doesn’t bulk up his wallet. He’s posted the Eagle board file (direct download) and G-code (text file) for those interested in milling their own reference boards. The idea isn’t new – it’s been tried several times in different form factors in the past, generally using more traditional techniques. [proto logical] got inspiration from [Rohit Gupta’s] TinkerRule – The Maker’s Swiss Army Knife. Then there’s the very popular uRuler made by [Dave Jones] of EEVBlog fame. If you have any suggestions on improving the design, chime in with comments here.

Thanks to [ACG] for sending in this tip that he dug up while looking for CNC routed PCB’s.

A Tale of Two Browser PCB Tools

We live in a golden age of free Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools. It wasn’t that long ago that an engineering workstation was an expensive piece of hardware running very expensive software that typically had annual fees. Now, you can go to your local electronics store and buy a PC that would shame that old workstation and download plenty of software to design schematics, simulate circuits, program devices, and lay out PCBs.

The only problem with a lot of this free software is it runs on Windows. I do sometimes run Windows, but I most often use Linux, so there is a certain attractiveness to a new breed of tools that run in the Web browser. In particular, I wanted to look briefly at two Web-based EDA tools: EasyEDA and MeowCAD. Both offer similar features: draw a schematic, populate a PCB, and download manufacturing files (that is, Gerber files). EasyEDA also offers SPICE simulation.

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Upgrading an Old Camera with a New Light Meter

[Marc] has an old Voigtländer Vito CLR film camera. The camera originally came with an analog light meter built-in. The meter consisted of a type of solar panel hooked up to a coil and a needle. As more light reached the solar panel, the coil became energized more and more, which moved the needle farther and farther. It was a simple way of doing things, but it has a down side. The photo panels stop working over time. That’s why [Marc] decided to build a custom light meter using newer technology.

[Marc] had to work within the confines of the tiny space inside of the camera. He chose to use a LM3914 bar display driver IC as the primary component. This chip can sense an input voltage against a reference voltage and then display the result by illuminating a single LED from a row of ten LEDs.

[Marc] used a photo cell from an old calculator to detect the ambient light. This acts as a current source, but he needed a voltage source. He designed a transimpedence amplifier into his circuit to convert the current into a voltage. The circuit is powered with two 3V coil cell batteries, regulated to 5V. The 5V acts as his reference voltage for the display driver. With that in mind, [Marc] had to amplify this signal further.

It didn’t end there, though. [Marc] discovered that when sampling natural light, the system worked as intended. When he sampled light from incandescent light bulbs, he did not get the expected output. This turned out to be caused by the fact that incandescent lights flicker at a rate of 50/60 Hz. His sensor was picking this up and the sinusoidal output was causing problems in his circuit. He remedied this by adding two filtering capacitors.

The whole circuit fits on a tiny PCB that slides right into position where the original light meter used to be. It’s impressive how perfectly it fits considering everything that is happening in this circuit.

[Thanks Mojay]

State-Aware Foldable Electronics Enters The Third Dimension

Still working with PCBs in 2D? Not [Yoav]. With some clever twists on the way we fab PCBs, he’s managed to create a state-aware foldable circuit board that responds to different configurations.

From his paper [PDF warning], [Yoav] discusses two techniques for developing foldable circuits that may be used repeatedly. The first method involves printing the circuit onto a flexible circuit board material and then bound front-and-back between two sheets of acrylic. Valid folded edges are distinguished by the edges of individual acrylic pieces. The second method involves laying out circuits manually via conductive copper tape and then exposing pads to determine an open or closed state.

Reconfigurable foldable objects may open the door for many creative avenues; in the video (after the break), [Yoav] demonstrates the project’s state-awareness with a simple onscreen rendering that echoes its physical counterpart.

While these circuits are fabbed from a custom solution, not FR1 or FR4, don’t let that note hold your imagination back. In fact, If you’re interested with using PCB FR4 as a structural element, check out [Voja’s] comprehensive guide on the subject.

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Etching PCBs With A 3D Printer

There are dozens of circuit board printers out there that lay down traces of conductive ink and ask you to glue down components to a fragile circuit board. This is a far cry from the old way of making PCBs, but these printers are going gangbusters, cashing in on the recent popularity of hardware startups and rapid prototyping.

People who think deeply about a problem are few and far between, but lucky for us [Arvid] is one of them. He’s come up with a way of creating PCBs with any 3D printer and steel rod. The results are better than anything you could make with a circuit board printer, and the technique is very, very cheap.

[Arvid] is using the traditional method of etching away copper, just some ferric chloride and a bit of time. How he’s masking the copper that shouldn’t be etched away is a unique process we haven’t seen before. He’s simply covering a piece of copper clad board with permanent marker, and scribing the parts he wants to be etched with a sharp steel rod attached to a 3D printer.

The G code for the printer was generated by FlatCAM, a piece of software made specifically for cutting PCBs with a mill. [Arvid]’s technique works so well that spindles and mills aren’t needed; only a sufficiently sharp instrument to scrape away permanent marker.

Thanks [Hassi] for sending this one in.