From Zero to Nano

Have you ever wanted to build your own Arduino from scratch? [Pratik Makwana] shares the entire process of designing, building and flashing an Arduino Nano clone. This is not an entry-level project and requires some knowledge of soldering to succeed with such small components, but it is highly rewarding to make. Although it’s a cheap build, it’s probably cheaper to just buy a Nano. That’s not the point.

The goal here and the interesting part of the project is that you can follow the entire process of making the board. You can use the knowledge to design your own board, your own variant or even a completely different project.

from-zero-to-nano-thumb[Pratik Makwana] starts by showing how to design the circuit schematic diagram in an EDA tool (Eagle) and the corresponding PCB layout design. He then uses the toner transfer method and a laminator to imprint the circuit into the copper board for later etching and drilling. The challenging soldering process is not detailed, if you need some help soldering SMD sized components we covered some different processes before, from a toaster oven to a drag soldering process with Kapton tape.

Last but not least, the bootloader firmware. This was done using an Arduino UNO working as master and the newly created the Arduino Nano clone as target. After that you’re set to go. To run an actual sketch, just use your standard USB to UART converter to burn it and proceed as usual.

Voilá, from zero to Nano:

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Free Routing for gEDA

If you lay out PC boards using software, it is a good bet you have an opinion about autorouters. Some people won’t use a package that can’t automatically route traces. Others won’t accept a machine layout when they can do their own by hand. You can, of course, combine the two, and many designers do.

The open source gEDA PCB package (and pcb-md) have an autorouter, but it is pretty simplistic. [VK5HSE] shows how you can use a few tools to interface with the Java Freerouting application, to get a better result. For example, the original router made square corners, while the Freerouting application will create angles and arcs, if configured properly.

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How Commercial Printed Circuit Boards Are Made

Most of us who have dabbled a little in electronics will have made our own printed circuit boards at some point. We’ll have rubbed on sticky transfers, laser-printed onto acetate, covered our clothing with ferric chloride stains, and applied ourselves to the many complex and tricky processes involved. And after all that, there’s a chance we’ll have ended up with boards that were over or under-etched, and had faults. For many the arrival of affordable online small-run professional PCB production from those mostly-overseas suppliers has been a step-change to our electronic construction abilities.

[Fran Blanche] used to make her own boards for her Frantone effects pedals, but as she admits it was a process that could at times be tedious. With increased production she had to move to using a board house, and for her that means a very high-quality local operation rather than one on the other side of the world. In the video below the break she takes us through each step of the PCB production process as it’s done by the professionals with a human input rather than by robots or ferric-stained dilettantes.

Though it’s twenty minutes or so long it’s an extremely interesting watch, as while we’re all used to casually specifying the parameters of the different layers and holes in our CAD packages we may not have seen how they translate to the real-world processes that deliver our finished boards. Some operations are very different from those you’d do at home, for example the holes are drilled as a first step rather than at the end because as you might imagine the through-plating process needs a hole to plate. The etching is a negative process rather than a positive one, because it serves to expose the tracks for the plating process before etching, and the plating becomes the etch resist.

If you’re used to packages from far afield containing your prototype PCBs landing on your doorstep as if by magic, take a look. It’s as well to know a little more detail about how they were made.

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Creating A PCB In Everything: Upverter

For the last five months, I’ve been writing a series of posts describing how to build a PCB in every piece of software out there. Every post in this series takes a reference schematic and board, and recreates all the elements in a completely new PCB tool.

There are three reasons why this sort of review is valuable. First, each post in this series is effectively a review of a particular tool. Already we’ve done Fritzing (thumbs down), KiCad (thumbs up), Eagle (thumbs up), and Protel Autotrax (interesting from a historical perspective). Secondly, each post in this series is a quick getting started guide for each PCB tool. Since the reference schematic and board are sufficiently complex for 90% of common PCB design tasks, each of these posts is a quick how-to guide for a specific tool. Thirdly, this series of posts serves as a basis of comparison between different tools. For example, you can do anything you want in KiCad and most of what you want in Eagle. Fritzing is terrible, and Autotrax is the digital version of the rub-on traces you bought at Radio Shack in 1987.

With that introduction out of the way, let’s get cranking on Upverter.

A little bit about Upverter

Upverter was founded in 2010 as an entirely web-based EDA tool aimed at students, hobbyists, and Open Hardware circuit designers. This was one of the first completely web-based circuit design tools and Upverter’s relative success has been a bellwether for other completely web-based EDA tools such as circuits.io and EasyEDA.

I would like to take a second to mention Upverter is a Y Combinator company (W11), which virtually guarantees this post will make it to the top of Hacker News. Go fight for imaginary Internet points amongst yourselves.

Upverter is a business after all, so how are they making money? Most EDA suites offer a free, limited version for personal, hobbyist, and ‘maker’ projects, and Upverter is no exception. The professional tier offers a few more features including CAM export, 3D preview, an API, simulation (coming soon), BOM management, and unlimited private projects for $125 per seat per month, or $1200 per seat per year.

To give you a basis of comparison for that subscription fee, Eagle CAD’s new license scheme gives you everything – 999 schematic sheets, 16 layers, and unlimited board area – for $65 per month, or $500 per year. Altium’s CircuitStudio comes in at $1000 for a one-year license. There are more expensive EDA suites such as Altium Designer and OrCAD, but you have to call a sales guy just to get a price.

Upverter is positioning itself as a professional tool at a professional price. There are better tools out there, of course, but there are thousands of businesses out there designing products with tools that cost $500 to $1000 per seat per year. In any event, this is all academic; the Hackaday crowd gravitates towards the free end of the market, whether that means beer or speech.

A big draw for Upverter is their Parts Concierge service. You’ll never have to create a part from scratch again, so the sales copy says. Apparently, Upverter is using a combination of very slick scripts to pull part layouts off a datasheet and human intervention / sanity check to create these parts. Does it work? We’re going to find out in the review below.

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No-Etch: The Proof in the Bluetooth Pudding

In a previous episode of Hackaday, [Rich Olson] came up with a new no-etch circuit board fabrication method. And now, he’s put it to the test: building an nRF52 Bluetooth reference design, complete with video, embedded below.

The quick overview of [Rich]’s method: print out the circuit with a laser printer, bake a silver-containing glue onto the surface, repeat a few times to get thick traces, glue the paper to a substrate, and use low-temperature solder to put parts together. A potential drawback is the non-negligible resistance for the traces, but a lot of the time that doesn’t matter and the nRF52 reference design proves it.

The one problem here may be the trace antenna. [Rich] reports that it sends out a weaker-than-expected signal. Any RF design folks want to speculate wildly about the cause?

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A Heart for His Girlfriend

[Decino] made a nice LED animated blinking heart box for his girlfriend. That’s a nice gesture, but more to the point here, it’s a nice entrée into the world of custom hardware. The project isn’t anything more than a home-etched PCB, a custom 3D-printed case, a mess of LEDs and current-limiting resistors, a shift register, and a microcontroller. (OK, we’re admittedly forgetting the Fifth Element.) The board is even single-sided with pretty wide traces. In short, it’s a great first project that ties together all of the basics without any parts left over. Oh, and did we mention Valentine’s day?

Once you’ve got these basics down, though, the world is your oyster. Building almost anything you need is just a matter of refining the process and practice. And if you’ve never played around with shift registers, a mega-blinker project like this is a great way to learn hands-on.

Not everything we write up on Hackaday has to be neural nets and JTAG ports. Sometimes a good beginner project that hits the fundamentals with no extra fat is just the ticket. What’s your favorite intro project?

PCB Design Guidelines to Minimize RF Transmissions

There are certain design guidelines for PCBs that don’t make a lot of sense, and practices that seem excessive and unnecessary. Often these are motivated by the black magic that is RF transmission. This is either an unfortunate and unintended consequence of electronic circuits, or a magical and useful feature of them, and a lot of design time goes into reducing or removing these effects or tuning them.

You’re wondering how important this is for your projects and whether you should worry about unintentional radiated emissions. On the Baddeley scale of importance:

  • Pffffft – You’re building a one-off project that uses battery power and a single microcontroller with a few GPIO. Basically all your Arduino projects and around-the-house fun.
  • Meh – You’re building a one-off that plugs into a wall or has an intentional radio on board — a run-of-the-mill IoT thingamajig. Or you’re selling a product that is battery powered but doesn’t intentionally transmit anything.
  • Yeeeaaaaahhhhhhh – You’re selling a product that is wall powered.
  • YES – You’re selling a product that is an intentional transmitter, or has a lot of fast signals, or is manufactured in large volumes.
  • SMH – You’re the manufacturer of a neon sign that is taking out all wireless signals within a few blocks.

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