Make PCBs with DLP, OMG!

There’s so many ways to skin the home-fabrication-of-PCBs cat! Here’s yet another. [Nuri Erginer] had a DLP projector on hand, and with the addition of some reducing optics, managed to turn it into a one-shot PCB exposer.

If you’ve ever used photo-resist PCB material before, you know the drill: print out your circuit onto transparency film, layer the transparency with the sensitized PCB, expose with a UV light for a while, dissolve away the unexposed resist, and then etch. Here, [Nuri] combines the first three steps in one by exposing the board directly from a DLP projector.

The catch is that the projector’s resolution limits the size of the board that you can make. To fab a board that’s 10cm x 10cm, at XGA resolution (1024×768), you’ll end up with a feature size of around 0.004″ in the good direction and 0.005″ in the other.

For DIP parts, that’s marginal, but for fine-pitch or small SMT parts, that won’t do. On the other hand, for a smaller board, optimally one in the same 4:3 ratio, it could work. And because it exposes in one shot, you can’t beat the speed. Cool hack, [Nuri]!

When you need more precision, strapping a UV laser to an accurate 2D robot is a good way to go, but it’s gonna take a while longer.

BGA Hand Soldering Video

By 2016, most people have got the hang of doing SMD soldering in the garage–at least for standard packaging. Ball Grid Array or BGA, however, remains one of the more difficult packages to work with [Colin O’Flynn] has an excellent video (almost 30-minutes, including some parts that are sped up) that shows exactly how he does a board with BGA.

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Nick Sayer: Making 10ⁿ Isn’t The Same As Building One

Building one of something is tremendously easy. If you’re making one of something, you can cover the insides with hot glue, keep everything held together with duct tape, and mess around with it enough that it mostly works most of the time. Building more than one of something is another matter entirely. This is the thought behind DFM, or Design For Manufacturing. [Nick Sayer] is an experienced seller on Tindie and he’s put together enough kits to learn the ins and outs, rights and wrongs of building not one, but an inventory of things. Check out this last talk of the 2015 Hackaday SuperConference, then join us below for a bit more on the subject.

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Hackaday Links: December 6, 2015

[Camus] had it all wrong. After a few hundred years of rolling a stone up a mountain, Sisyphus would do what all humans would do: become engrossed in novelty. The stone would never reach the summit, but it could roll off some pretty sweet ramps. That mountain goat that ticked him off a few decades ago? If Sisyphus let go right now, the stone would probably take that goat out. Sisyphus, like all of us, would be consumed in meaningless novelty. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The pumpkin spice must flow. It’s the holidays and for a lot of us that means copious amounts of baked goods. How about an edible sandworm? It looks like something close to a cinnamon roll.

This December’s Marie Claire – whatever that is, I have no idea – features haute circuits. These circuit boards are the work of [Saar Drimer] and Boldport, makers of fine circuit board art. We’ve seen his work a number of times featuring squiggly traces and backlit panels. This seems to be the first time Boldport and the entire idea of PCB art has infiltrated the design world. He also does puzzles.

Raspberry Pi cases simply do not look cool. There’s ports coming out everywhere, and plastic really doesn’t look that great. You know what does look great? Walnut. [Karl] made a few of these out of walnut, MDF and solid aluminum. He’s thinking he might bring this to market, you can check out his webzone here.

Self-driving cars being sold right now! That’s an eBay link for a DARPA Grand Challenge vehicle, a heavily modified Isuzu VehiCross loaded up with computers, a laser scanner, camera, and connected to actuators for steering, brake, pedals, and shifter.

A few years ago, a snowboarding company realized they could use YouTube as a marketing device. They made some really cool projects, like a snowboard with battery-powered heaters embedded in the core of the board (yes, it works). There’s only so many different snowboards you can build, so they turned to surfboards. In fact, they turned to cardboard surfboards, and last week they made a cardboard electric guitar in the Fender custom shop. It’s a completely understandable linear progression from A to B to I don’t know what kind of glue they’re using.

KiCad 4.0 is Released

If you’re a KiCad user, as many of us here at Hackaday are, you’ll be elated to hear that KiCad 4.0 has just been released! If you’re not yet a KiCad user, or if you’ve given it a shot in the past, now’s probably a good time to give it a try. (Or maybe wait until the inevitable 4.0.1 bugfix version comes out.)

If you’ve been using the old “stable” version of KiCad (from May 2013!), you’ve got a lot of catching-up to do.

The official part footprint libraries changed their format sometime in 2014, and are all now hosted on GitHub in separate “.pretty” folders for modularity and ease of updating. Unfortunately, this means that you’ll need to be a little careful with your projects until you’ve switched all the parts over. The blow is softened by a “component rescue helper” but you’re still going to need to be careful if you’re still using old schematics with the new version.

The most interesting change, from a basic PCB-layout perspective, is the push-and-shove router. We’re looking for a new demo video online, but this one from earlier this year will have to do for now. We’ve been using various “unstable” builds of KiCad for the last two years just because of this feature, so it’s awesome to see it out in an actual release. The push-and-shove router still has some quirks, and doesn’t have all the functionality of the original routers, though, so we often find ourselves switching back and forth. But when you need the push-and-shove feature, it’s awesome.

If you’re doing a board where timing is critical, KiCad 4.0 has a bunch of differential trace and trace-length tuning options that are something far beyond the last release. The 3D board rendering has also greatly improved.

Indeed, there are so many improvements that have been made over the last two and a half years, that everybody we know has been using the nightly development builds of KiCad instead of the old stable version. If you’ve been doing the same, version 4.0 may not have all that much new for you. But if you’re new to KiCad, now’s a great time to jump in.

We’ve covered KiCad hacks before, and have another article on KiCad add-on utilities in the pipeline as we write this. For beginners, [Chris Gammell]’s tutorial video series is still relevant, and is a must-watch.

Thanks [LC] for the newsworthy tip!

Easier PCB Vias with Drill Trick and Conductive Ink

If you’ve ever made double-sided PCBs without professional equipment, you had to deal with connecting one side of the board to the other. You have a few obvious choices: 1) Rely on component leads to connect both sides (and solder both sides); 2) Create vias and solder wire to both sides of the board; or 3) Use through hole rivets. [Diyouware] had a different idea: use conductive ink. After a few false starts, they found a technique that seemed to work well.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of people trying conductive ink with varying degrees of success. The biggest problem, usually, is that the ink wants to run out of the hole. [Diyouware] has an interesting solution for this problem: Don’t drill the hole all the way thorough.

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Every PCB Has Its Place

Everyone has their favorite process for PCB fabrication, as long as you’re a happy hacker I don’t think it really matters. But in this post I thought it might be interesting to describe my personal process, and some of the options available.

Making your own at home

The Dirty Electronics Skull Etching Synth a great looking maskless board.

Etching is the classic PCB fabrication option for the home hacker. It’s been many, many years since I etched a PCBs but it can produce interesting results. Some people don’t like it, and I’d personally tend to avoid it as a messy and finicky process. But, if you only need 1 or 2 layer boards with large features (through-hole components are best of course) it can be a viable option. In some cases, I think etched boards look awesome and are a great fit. One example is the skull etching shown to the right. The oxidation and discoloration of the boards adds to the design aesthetic in this case.

A simple design milled on an Accurate CNC

For those with a bigger budget a professional milling machine might be a viable choice. I’ve used an Accurate CNC in the past (LPKF and others make mills too), but this is an expensive option (no online pricing, but if $10,000 USD is a lot for you don’t bother). The accurate mill is pretty awesome, it can be fitted with a vacuum bed, automatic tool changer and vision system for alignment. The mill can produce high quality two layer boards with all the holes and vias drilled out. The final step of filling the vias is however manual, but compared to etched boards the results are pretty professional (the mill itself uses milled PCBs!). They claim a 0.1mm (4 mil) track size, I’ve never tried tracks this small but surface mount components were not a problem.

While a fun toy, it’s worth considering if you really need a PCB mill. The only case where they’re really valuable is if you want to be able to iterate over a design with less than a days turn around. This can be useful in RF or low noise designs where you might want to experiment with different layouts, but for other projects the price of a good mill can pay for quick turn around (1 or 2 days from order submission to delivery) on a lot of boards.

Commercial Fabrication

Years ago commercial fabrication used to be a very expensive and finicky process. For the most part you’d need to order a full panel putting the service outside of most hobbyists reach. Generating gerbers and drill files to the fabs specification could also be a process fraught with complication.

These days services that aggregate designs onto a single panel and break them out for distribution are common. For my work I mostly stick with OSHPark and SeeedStudio whose services complement each other well. I’ve also used Itead and found them compatible with Seeed (with the added benefit that they supply free boards for open projects).

Using OSHPark gives me the warm fuzzies. A child of the hacker community, born out of DorkbotPDX, all OSHPark’s boards are fabbed in the US (check out the great amphour interview for more details). Their services are limited to either 2 or 4 layer boards (always in purple, and always coated with gold (ENIG)), in 6×6 (6 mil traces with 6 mil spacing) or 5×5. I rarely attempt BGA boards so the 2 layer service works out great for me. OSHPark’s minimum order is 3 boards, which is perfect for prototyping. The gold plating also provides a nice finish, which both protects the board from oxidation and provides a nice surface to solder to. The main reason I use OSHPark however is that they’re cheap for small boards and have a relatively fast turn around (I recently purchased 3 tiny 20x15mm boards for $2.40 including shipping which was unbeatable). From OSHPark in the US to the UK my boards take about 2 weeks to arrive. They’ve also automatically upgrade boards to their super-swift service for free when there’s spare capacity. Their service is pretty slick, and provides a rendering of the gerbers prior to ordering as a final check which comes in very handy.

Zigbee to esp8266 interface fabricated by Seeed (left) and OSHPark (right) (more complex boards here)

Seeed on the other hand are much cheaper for larger size boards and volume orders. They also provide more color and finishing options. The cheapest option at Seeed is green PCBs with HASL finish (hot air solder leveling). From Seeed, my boards usually take about a month to arrive (there are a few delivery options, but in my experience this is about as fast as it gets and faster shipping services often make using Seeed less attractive).

The image to the right shows a couple of very simple boards I had manufactured at both OSHPark and Seeed. I’ve never had a fabrication issues with boards from either service (though I prefer the ENIG finish).

Partly due to the limitations imposed by using commercial fabs I pipeline my projects. I send projects out to fab early in the design process and then switch to another design. When the board comes back I bring it up, bodge as required, and iterate over the layout. This works well with a two-week turn around, so I mostly use OSHPark while prototyping.

My boards also tend to be quite small (Arduino shield size or a little bigger). With small boards like this OSHPark is usually on-par or cheaper than ordering from Seeed (whose minimum quantity is 10 boards). With boards of about 100x100mm or larger I consider Seeed as they become significantly cheaper.

As a hobbyist I also rarely need huge numbers of boards, but for workshops when I need 10 or 20 boards I order from Seeed based on the final iteration of my prototypes. This is not only much cheaper than OSHPark, but I can get boards in a variety of colors to make workshops more interesting too.

This post has described some of the available options and my personal process. I hope it’s been interesting, but I’d love to hear about your favorite fabrication techniques, services and experiences both good and bad too. Please comment below!