Taking the Converted PC PSU Bench Supply a Step Further

A quality bench power supply is essential for electronics work. Nobody wants to go through the trouble of digging through their electronics bin just to find a wall wart with the right output. And, even if you were so inclined, it would be folly to assume that its output would actually be clean.

You could, of course, purchase a purpose-built bench power supply. But, this is Hackaday, and I’m sure many of you would rather build one yourself from an inexpensive PC power supply. Normally, you’d do this by separating out the different voltage lines into useful groups, such as 12V, 5V, and 3.3V. [Supercap2f] wanted to take this a step further, both to get a more useful unit and to practice his PCB-making.

His design uses a custom circuit design to fuse the circuits, and to provide some basic logic. Using the LCD display, you can see which lines are powered on. There is even a simple 3D printed cover to keep everything neat and tidy. [Supercap2f] has posted all of the design files, so you can build one of these yourself. We’ve seen similar builds in the past, but this is another nice one that anyone with the ability to etch PCBs can build.

Design for Hackers

Near the end of the lifecycle of mass-market commercial product development, an engineering team may come in and make a design for manufacturability (DFM) pass. The goal is to make the device easy, cheap, and reliable to build and actually improve reliability at the same time. We hackers don’t usually take this last step, because when you’re producing just a couple of any given device, it hardly makes sense. But when you release an open-source hardware design to the world, if a lot of people re-build your widget, it might be worth it to consider DFM, or at least a hardware hacker’s version of DFM.

If you want people to make their own versions of your project, make it easy and cheap for them to do so and don’t forget to also make it hackable. This isn’t the same as industrial DFM: rather than designing for 100,000s of boards to be put together by robot assembly machines, you are designing for an audience of penny-pinching hackers, each building your project only once. But thinking about how buildable your design is will still be worthwhile.

In this article, I’m going to touch on a couple of Design for Hackers (DFH) best practices. I really want to hear your experience and desires in the comments. What would you like to see in someone else’s open designs? What drives you nuts when replicating a project? What tricks do you know to make a project easily and cheaply buildable by the average hacker?

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[CNLohr]’s Glass PCB Fabrication Process

One of [CNLohr]’s bigger claims to fame is his process for making glass PCBs. They’re pretty much identical to regular, fiberglass-based PCBs, but [CNLohr] is building circuits on microscope slides. We’ve seen him build a glass PCB LED clock and a Linux Minecraft Ethernet thing, but until now, [CNLohr]’s process of building these glass PCBs hasn’t been covered in the depth required to duplicate these projects.

This last weekend, [CNLohr] put together a series of videos on how he turns tiny pieces of glass into functional circuits.

At the highest level of understanding, [CNLohr]’s glass PCBs really aren’t any different from traditional homebrew PCBs made on copper clad board. There’s a substrate, and a film of copper that is etched away to produce traces and circuits. The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details for this build. Let’s dig deeper.

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DIYing Huge BGA Packages

One day [Andy] was cruising around eBay and spotted something interesting. Forty Virtex-E FPGAs for two quid each. These are the big boys of the FPGA world, with 512 user IO pins, almost 200,000 logic gates, packed into a 676-ball BGA package. These are not chips designed for the hobbyist. These chips are not designed for boards with less than six layers. These chips aren’t even designed for boards with 6/6mil tolerances from the usual suspects in China. By any account, a 676-ball package is not like a big keep out sign for hobbyists. You don’t turn down a £2 class in advanced PCB design, though, leading to one of the most impressive ‘I just bought some crap on eBay’ projects we’ve seen.

halfbuiltThe project [Andy] had in mind for these chips was a generic dev board, which meant breaking out the IO pins and connecting some SRAM, SDRAM, and Flash memory. The first issue with this project is escape routing all the balls. Xilinx published a handy application note that recommends specific design parameters for the traces of copper under the chip. Unfortunately, this was a six-layer board, and the design rules in the application note were for 5/5mil traces. [Andy]’s board house can’t do six-layer boards, and their design rules are for 6/6mil traces. To solve this problem, [Andy] just didn’t route the inner balls, and hoped the 5mil traces would work out.

With 676 tiny little pads on a PCB, the clocks routed, power supply implemented, too many decoupling caps on the back, differential pairs, static RAM, a few LEDs placed just for fun, [Andy] had to solder this thing up. Since the FPGA was oddly one of the less expensive items on the BOM, he soldered that first, just to see if it would work. It did, which meant it was time to place the RAM, Flash, and dozens of decoupling caps. Everything went relatively smoothly – the only problem was the tiny 0402 decoupling caps on the back of the board. This was, by far, the hardest part of the board to solder. [Andy] only managed to get most of the decoupling caps on with a hot air gun. That was good enough to bring the board up, but he’ll have to figure some other way of soldering those caps for the other 30 or so boards.

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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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