Lessons From The Fablab Masters

I spent some time recently at the Fab11 conference, a gathering of the people behind the Fab Labs that are springing up all over the world, where entrepreneurs, hackers and the curious can learn about making things. So, it was no surprise that this was a great place to pick up some tips on designing, building and hacking things. Here are a few of the lessons I picked up at this fascinating gathering of the fabbers.

Build Quickly

If you can make something in an hour, you’ll make it better in a day

said [Joris Van Tubergen]. He knows something about making unusual things because he 3D printed a full-sized Elephant. To do this, he worked out how to hack the Ultimaker 2 3D printer to print to an unlimited Z height by flipping the printer upside down and moving the Z motor to lift the printer rather than the print head. With a few tweaks to the software, he could then print full-height elephant slices to speed up the process. He is absolutely right: while it is tempting to endlessly fiddle with a concept on paper, you learn more by building a prototype, even if it doesn’t work.

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Panel-Mounted Breadboard Accessories

[Chuck Stephens] grew up with Radio Shack 100-in-1 electronic kits. The ones with lots of components and spring terminals that could be wired to be a radio, a burglar alarm, or whatever.[Chuck] graduated to solderless breadboard, but did miss having panel mounted components like pots and switches easily available. So he has been building his own accessory boxes.

Of course, it is easy enough to just connect breadboard wires to component, but [Chuck] went further than that. Using boxes of different types (including a cigar box), he mounted the components properly and also wired them to a breadboard for easy connection.

If you’ve ever tried to solder to breadboard springs (we have), you’ve found it is hard to get adhesion to the shiny metal. [Chuck] solved the problem by crimping little wire hooks to the springs. The result is a good looking and functional prototyping aid.

They do make tiny breadboard style contacts (called tie point blocks; good luck finding them) for this kind of application, but the crimp technique works on common breadboards. These are cheap and much easier to find.

Of course, these days, we are as likely to want to mount SMDs than panel mounted controls. Now if we could only figure out where to put the components. If you want something less involved, take a look at the video below.

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Circuit Printer Doubles as a Pick and Place

Squink PCB printer and Pick and Place

Prototyping circuits is still a pain. The typical process is to order your PCBs, await their arrival, hand assemble a board, and start testing. It’s time consuming, and typically takes at least a week to go from design to prototype.

The folks at BotFactory are working on fixing that with the Squink (Kickstarter warning). This device not only prints PCBs, but also functions as a pick and place. Rather than using solder, the device uses conductive glue to affix components to the substrate.

This process also allows for a wide range of substrates. Traditional FR4 works, but glass and flexible substrates can work too. They’re also working on using an insulating ink for multilayer boards.

While there are PCB printers out there, and the home etching process always works, building the board is only half the battle. Hand assembly using smaller components is slow, and is prone to mistakes. If this device is sufficiently accurate, it could let us easily prototype complex packages such as BGAs, which are usually a pain.

Of course it has its limitations. The minimum trace width is 10 mils, which is a bit large. Also at $2600, this is an expensive device to buy sight unseen. While it is a Kickstarter, it’d be nice to see an all in one device that can prototype circuits quickly and cheaply.

Using Surface Mount Devices On A Breadboard

[Czar] was working on a project with the Raspberry Pi using the MCP3008 analog to digital converter. The surface mount SOIC version of this chip was slightly cheaper, and there’s always a way to make that work (Portuguese, Google Translation). How [Czar] did it is fairly impressive, as it’s a bit more flexible for breadboard designs than a through-hole version, and done correctly, is an extremely sturdy hack.

A few new leads needed to be soldered onto the SOIC package, and for this [Czar] chose jumper wires. This makes each pin easy to plug into a solderless breadboard, and since [Czar] was extremely clever, all the wires for power, ground, analog, and SPI are color coded.

Simply soldering a few jumper wires onto a chip won’t last for very long. To solve this problem, [Czar] potted the entire chip and its connections with hot glue. Probably not the best solution, and a heavy-duty epoxy would have been better, but the current build is more than enough to stand up to the relatively minor abuse it will receive on the workbench.

Prototyping Brief Case Would Be Fun To Take Through Customs

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[Baldor] prototypes electronic circuits all the time, but unfortunately he doesn’t really have a dedicated work space to do this! Annoyed at having to get all his tools ready and then put them away again after every project, he’s come up with his very own electronics prototyping briefcase.

He started with a very old hand-made wooden tool briefcase and added some fun stuff. His case features four breadboards, all with individual positives, and each pair with common grounds. Banana clips allow for various setups with different wiring. He has 5 integrated volt meters, along with 5 buck-boost DC-DC voltage regulators, each set for 3V, 5V, 9V, 12V, and 18V. It’s an ingenuous setup and would make prototyping a breeze compared to most work benches!

In addition to the basic prototyping tools, he’s also got a development board and a place for his Pickit2. Underneath the main prototyping area he stores the power supply, and a veritable army of jumpers. We’re impressed.

Now all he needs is a portable electronics lab in a box once his prototypes are proven!

[Thanks Xavier!]

Dirt Cheap Dirty Boards Offers Dirt Cheap PCB Fab

When your project is ready to build, it’s time to find a PCB manufacturer. There are tons of them out there, but for prototype purposes cheaper is usually better. [Ian] at Dangerous Prototypes has just announced Dirt Cheap Dirty Boards, a PCB fabrication service for times where quality doesn’t matter too much. [Ian] also discussed the service on the Dangerous Prototypes forum.

The boards are definitely cheap. $12 USD gets you ten 5 cm by 5 cm boards with 100% e-test and free worldwide shipping. You can even choose from a number of solder mask colors for no additional cost. [Ian] does warn the boards aren’t of the best quality, as you can tell in the Bus Pirate picture above. The silkscreen alignment has some issues, but for $1.2 a board, it’s hard to complain. After all, the site’s motto is “No bull, just crappy PCBs.”

The main downside of this service will be shipping time. While the Chinese fab house cranks out boards in two to four days, Hong Kong Post can take up to 30 days to deliver your boards. This isn’t ideal, but the price is right.

Script makes custom pinout labels for your chips

cusom-pinout-labels

After years of prototyping hobby electronics we’ve learned (several times actually) that when something’s not working it’s a problem with the hardware. Usually the jumper wires aren’t hooked up correctly, or we needed to throw a pull-up resistor in and forgot to. One thing that can really help sort these problems out quickly is a pinout label for each chip like the ones seen above. This is a project which [John Meacham] came up with. It uses a script to generate chip pinouts on a label maker.

The label maker he started with is a Brother PT-1230PC. It connects to a computer via USB and can use a few different widths of self adhesive label tape. [John] found that the 1/4″ wide tape is nearly a perfect fit for PDIP components.

His script takes a YAML file as the input. This formatting standard makes is quick an easy to whip up a label for a new chip using just your text editor. From there his Pearl script turns the data into a Portable Network Graphics (.png) file with the labels spaced for the 0.1″ pitch of the chip. Send this graphic to your label maker and you’ve got an adhesive reminder that will help reduce the time you spend pawing through datasheets just for the pinouts.