Hackaday Prize Entry: Printem Is Polaroid For PCBs

We are going to great lengths to turn a quick idea into an electronic prototype, be it PCB milling, home etching or manufacturing services that ship PCBs around the world. Unwilling to accept the complications of PCB fabrication, computer science student [Varun Perumal Chadalavada] came up with an express solution for PCB prototyping: Printem – a Polaroid-like film for instant-PCBs.

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PCB Laminator Is Its Own Project

One of the easiest ways to make PC boards at home is to use the toner transfer method. The idea is simple: print the artwork using a laser printer and then use a clothes iron to transfer the toner from the paper to a clean copper clad board. The toner is essentially plastic, so it will melt and stick to the board, and it will also resist etchant.

There are several things you can do to make things easier. The first is the choice of paper. However, the other highly variable part of the process is the clothes iron. You have to arrange for the right amount of heat and pressure. If you don’t do a lot of boards, you’ll probably have to make several passes at getting this right, scrubbing the reject boards with acetone and scouring pads to clean them again.

[Igor] had enough of the clothes iron and knew that other people have used lamination machines to get the toner off the paper and on the blank board. He started with a commercial laminator but hacked it for PID control of the temperature and made other improvements.

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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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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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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.

Bitten By PCB Defects

If you’ve ordered PCBs from Seeed Studio, ITead, DirtyPCB, or another board house in China, you’ve probably noticed that neat little 100% e-test option available on the order form. If you select this, the board house will throw your PCBs in a machine that will poke a pin in every pad to make sure all the connections are good. Less work for you, right? As [Andy] found out, not always. He was bitten by a manufacturing defect that sheds some light on what that e-test actually is, and the capabilities of what these Chinese board houses can do.

Most of [Andy]’s project have a lot of surface mount components, and when he receives his boards, he notices a few pin pricks on each and every pad. This is from a flying lead machine; a robotic continuity checker that makes sure all the relevant pads are electrically isolated from each other.

One of [Andy]’s recent projects is an entirely through-hole design. Apparently these robotic meters don’t test through-hole pads; it’s significantly harder to measure the continuity of a hole rather than a pad, apparently. After assembling one of these boards, he noticed a problem where one of the GPIOs was permanently high. The offending trace was found underneath a DIP socket, in precisely the worst possible place it could be.

If [Andy] had inspected the board beforehand, this problem would have been avoided. He says it was a relatively simple board with big traces and wide spaces and he didn’t think a manufacturing defect was possible. He was wrong, and now we have a warning. We thank him for that.

The Ultimate Tool For Homebrew PCB Manufacturing

While OSHPark, Seeed Studio, and DirtyPCB have taken most of the fun and urgency out of making your own circuit boards at home, there are still a few niche cases and weird people who like to go it alone. For them, [Jarzębski] has created the ultimate homebrew PCB manufacturing solution (.pl, here’s the Google translatrix).

[Jarzębski] is using UV-sensitive photomasks for his PCBs, but he’s not doing something simple like a blacklight to develop his boards. He’s using a 30 Watt UV LED for exposing his boards. This, of course, generates a lot of heat and to mitigate that he’s added a Peltier cooler, temperature sensor, and a fan to cool off this retina-burning LED. 30 Watts will get the job done, considering [Jarzębski] was using a quartet of 4.5W LEDs before this build.

Developing a PCB is only one part of the equation; you need to etch it, too. For this, [Jarzębski] is using a small 1.6 Liter aquarium and four aquarium heaters for dunking 120mm x 120mm PCBs in the tank. There’s no mention of what chemistry [Jarzębski] is using – ferric chloride, cupric chloride, or otherwise – but the heaters and aerator should make etching go very smoothly.

There’s a video (English) going over the rest of the project below.

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