Design and Hacking Drilldown: SuperCon Badge

One can imagine a political or business conference without an interactive badge — but not a hacker conference. Does this make the case for hackers being a special breed of people, always having something creative to show for their work? Yes, I think it does.

Following the Hackaday Belgrade conference in April of this year, we met at the Supplyframe offices to discuss the badge for the Hackaday SuperConference that will happen in Pasadena on 5+6th of November. The Belgrade conference badge (which was fully documented if you’re curious) was surprisingly popular, and I was asked to design the new one as well.

I was prepared to come up with something completely new, but [Mike Szczys] suggested keeping with the same basic concept for the project: “No reason to change anything, we have a badge that works”. To which I responded: “Well, the next one will also work”. But then I realized that “works” does not stand for “being functional”. The key is that it was embraced by visitors who played with it, coded on it, and solved a crypto challenge with it.

The World Doesn’t Have Enough LEDs

led-modules-versus-smdFast forward six months — here are the modifications made to the basic concept. First, the existing LED matrix, which was composed of two compact 8×8 blocks, was replaced by 128 discrete SMD LEDs. It was a much needed change to help scale down the dimensions and clunkiness, but also to avoid another painful experience of trying to purchase and have the matrix displays shipped, which seriously threatened the production of the previous badge.

It’s a long story which I discussed in my Belgrade talk — it turned out we did not manage to get enough common anode (CA) displays from all distributors in the whole world. We had a plan B, which also fizzled, leaving us with the plan C which actually included two “C”s: Common Cathode. We cleaned up all the supplies at five distributors, and managed to get 122 CA red, 340 CC red and 78 CA green displays (enough for only 270 badges) — the entire world supply. After that, you couldn’t get any 38 mm Kingbright’s display for months! The only problem was that there were two different versions of PCBs, one for CA and the other for CC displays, but luckily only one version of software, as it could autodetect the display type.

accelerometer-on-the-boardMotion and Expansion

So, what else was new in the concept? In the Belgrade version, the badge supported an accelerometer module and included an unpopulated footprint in case you decided to install it, but now the badge has the MEMS chip LIS3 as an integral part. There are nine pads (with five I/O ports, driven directly from the MCU) to which you can add a 9-pin expansion connector. There will be a number of these connectors at the Design Lab, so that anyone can expand their badge for their convenience, on the spot.

The Visual Design

The biggest change was in the visual design. What we came up with ended up being a fair bit smaller, lighter, with a more convenient shape, and less than half the thickness of the previous one. After we had scrapped quite a few ideas during the development process (including stylized skull, frog, etc), we were left with a couple of options which you can see on the image below. The wireframe drawing on the left hand side is the Belgrade badge, shown here for a size comparison. At this point the locale and date of the conference weren’t yet definitive, which is why you see San Francisco written on the images.


Design number 4 prevailed, so the PCB layout could begin. I don’t like autorouted PCBs, so I was in for quite a rough time trying to solve the routing manually having only 2 layers on the board at my disposal.

Routing a Compact LED Matrix

The LED matrix is so dense that there was virtually no room on the LED layer, so most of the tracks on the component layer had to be routed as if it was a single layer PCB. To make matters worse, the LED layer is routed as a matrix, with a bunch of horizontal and vertical tracks, otherwise a good reason to use a 4-layer PCB. To stay inside the budget, everything had to be placed on 2 layers, and that’s why the final result seems so confusing at the populated area between batteries:

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[NE555]’s SMD Prototyping is a Work of Art

One of [NE555]’s boards from the 90s.
Over on twitter [NE555] has been posting beautiful SMD prototypes.

Back in the 90s when surface mount components gained widespread adoption, the quick and cheap PCB prototyping services of today were unavailable. This led many to develop their own approaches. In Japan a particularly novel and beautiful approach was, and still is, somewhat popular. [NE555]’s work is a excellent example of this technique using a fine enameled wire (you can find this on eBay as “magnet wire”), wirewrap board, and careful hand soldering. [NE555] has made a great video on the process (which you can watch below).

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Blowtorch SMD Reflow

result[whitequark] has been experimenting with a blowtorch for SMD reflow. Having just moved 8,000 km [whitequark] was stuck without any of the usual reflow tools. They did however have a blowtorch handy, and gave it a go.

When [whitequark] mentioned attempts on Twitter, we figured the results would mostly involve charred PCBs, smoke-filled rooms, and a possible trip to the local hospital. But [whitequark] is more sensible than we are, and by carefully monitoring the temperature and gauging the distance was able to get pretty decent results.

[whitequark]’s made a couple of further attempts and has had varying results. Overall, I’m not sure it’s a technique that I’m interested in trying myself, but it goes to show that in a pinch, a hacker will always find a creative way to get the job done.

Almost Fail of The Week: Doing Surface Mount Reflow Wrong In Every Possible Way and Still Succeeding

Sometimes the best way to learn is from the success of others. Sometimes failure is the best teacher. In this case we are learning from [Tim Trzepacz]’s successive failures in his attempt to solder one board to another using a reflow oven. They somehow cancelled each other out, and he ended up with a working board. For those of you who have used a reflow oven, there will be eye rolling.

[Tim]’s first mistake was to use regular solder instead of paste. We can see how he got there logically; if you hand solder an SMD you melt solder onto the pads first to make it easier. However, the result was that he had two boards that wouldn’t sit flat on each other thanks to the globs of solder on the pads.

Not to be deterred, he laid the boards on top of each other and warmed up the oven to a toasty 650 degrees. Well, not quite. The dang oven didn’t turn to eleven, so he figured 500 would probably work too. Missing the hint entirely, he let his board bake in a nearly 1000F oven until he noticed some smoke which, he intuitively knew, definitely shouldn’t be happening.

The board was blackening, the solder mask was literally bubbling off the substrate, people were coming over to see the show, and he decided success was still possible. He clamped the heated boards together with a binder clip until they cooled. Someone gave him a lesson on reflow, presumably listened to through reddening ears.

Ashamed and defeated, he went home. However, there was a question in his mind. Sure it looks bad, but is it possible that the board actually works? After a quick test, the answer was yes. It loaded some code and an time later he was happily hacking away. Go figure.

One SMT Breakout to Rule Them All

You need to use surface-mount technology (SMT) parts in your design. But you also need to prototype. How to fit those little buggers into your breadboard?

[Simon] came up with a general-purpose SMT-to-breadboard solution. Now, there are already myriad adapter boards for the many-pin devices: SSOP-to-DIP adapters and so on. But what do you do when you just need to work that tiny SOT223 voltage regulator into a breadboarded circuit?

[Simon]’s solution fills that gap with one breadboardable design to handle all of your small-pin-count part needs. It accommodates SOT223, SOT323, and SOT23 three-pin parts like transistors or voltage regulators, and also has pads for all of the common two-terminal parts like resistors and capacitors from 0402 on up to 1206. You could build up a full voltage regulator circuit on one of these things. He’s even included some whitespace on the back for your notes.

SMT parts aren’t even the future any more. And with the right procedure, they’re not hard to hand-assemble. So the next time you have some extra space in a PCB order, toss in a couple of [Simon]’s breakouts and you’ll be ready for your next breadboarding session.

So, You’re Scared Of Surface Mount

If you are lucky enough to encounter a piece of homebrew electronics from the 1950s, the chances are that under the covers the components will be assembled on solder tags, each component with long leads, and chassis-mounted sockets for tubes. Easy to assemble with the most agricultural of soldering irons.

Open up a home build from the 1960s or early 1970s, and you might find the same passive components alongside germanium transistors mounted through holes in a curious widely spaced stripboard or even a home-made PCB with chunky wide tracks.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s you would find a more familiar sight. Dual-in-line ICs through-hole on 0.1″ spaced stripboard, and home-made PCBs starting to appear on fibreglass board. Easy to use, easy to solder. Familiar. Safe. Exactly what you’ll see on your breadboard nearly forty years later, and still what you’ll see from a lot of kit manufacturers.

Nice and familiar, a through-hole Arduino. By Nicholas Zambetti -, CC BY-SA 3.0
Nice and familiar, a through-hole Arduino.
By Nicholas Zambetti CC BY-SA 3.0

But we all know that progress in the world of electronic components has not stood still. Surface-mount components have a history going back to the 1960s, and started to appear in consumer equipment from the end of the 1980s. More components per square inch, smaller, cheaper devices. Nowadays they are ubiquitous, and increasingly these new components are not offered in through-hole versions. Not a problem if your experiments are limited to the 741 and the 555, but something that rather cramps your style if your tastes extend to novel sensors for a microcontroller, or RF work.

This development has elicited a range of reactions. Many people have embraced the newer medium with pleasure, and the project pages are full of really clever SMD projects as a result. But a significant number have not been able to make the jump to SMD, maybe they are put off by the smaller size of SMD components, the special tools they might require, or even the new skills they’d have to learn. When you sell a kit with SMD components these are the reactions you will hear from people who like the kit but wish it was available in through-hole, so this article is for them. To demystify working with SMDs, and to demonstrate that SMD work should be within the grasp of almost anyone who can wield a soldering iron.

But They’re So Tiny!

Tiny SMDs - fortunately most of which you will not have to worry about.
Tiny SMDs – fortunately most of which you will not have to worry about.

It’s likely to be the first reaction from a lifelong through-hole solderer. SMD parts are often very small indeed, and even those with larger packages can have leads that seem as numerous and thin as the hairs on a cat when seen with the rabbit-in-the-headlights panic of the uninitiated.

But it is important to take a step back and understand that not all SMDs are created equal. Some of them are grain-of-sand tiny and only hand-solderable by those with God-like powers, but plenty of devices are available in SMD packages large enough for mere mortals.

So don’t worry when you look at a board covered with grain-of-dust-sized components. Very few people could attempt that level of construction, your scribe certainly can’t. (We await commenters claiming to routinely hand-solder thousand-pin BGAs and 01005 chip components with anticipation, however such claims are useless without proof.)

Instead, concentrate on the SMD packages you can handle. SMD chip component packages are refered to by a number that relates to their dimension. Confusingly there are both metric and imperial versions of the scheme, but the format is the same: length followed by width.

Consider the picture above with the PCB and the tape measure, it’s the underside of a Raspberry Pi model B+, and will have been assembled by a robotic pick-and-place machine. The majority of the components are very tiny indeed, but you will notice L3 as the black component towards the bottom left that looks huge compared to its neighbours. That package is a “1008”, 0.1 inches long by 0.08 inches wide. It’s still tiny, but imagine picking it up with a pair of tweezers under a magnifying glass. Not so bad, is it. You’ve probably handled plenty of things in that size range before, do SMD parts seem so scary now? The larger components – 0805, 1008, and 1206 – are surprisingly within the grasp of the average maker.

But I need all sorts of special tools!

Retro Populator, a homebrew pick-and-place machine we featured back in 2014
Retro Populator, a homebrew pick-and-place machine we featured back in 2014

In a commercial environment an SMD device will be assembled by machine. Glue or solder paste will be printed in the relevant parts of the board, and a robotic pick-and-place machine will retrieve components from their tape packaging and automatically place them in their correct orientations. The board will then be soldered all-at once, either in a reflow oven or by a wave soldering machine.

If you’re new to SMDs you are unlikely to have any of this kit just lying around on your bench. There are self-built pick-and-place machines and a host of self-built reflow ovens, but it’s safe to say they’re still quite an advanced thing to have.

You’ll also see all manner of commercial kit aimed at the bench-top SMD constructor. Hot air soldering stations or SMD bits for conventional irons, all of which are very useful but come with a hefty price tag.

The good news is that you don’t need any of these special tools to dip your toe into the SMD water. You almost certainly already have everything you need, and if you don’t then very little of what you lack is specifically for SMD work. If you have the following items then you are good to go:

A basic SMD soldering toolkit
A basic SMD soldering toolkit

A good light source. Even the larger SMDs are still pretty small. Plenty of light ensures you will be able to see them clearly. A good downward pointing desk lamp should suffice. A clear high-contrast surface. Because SMDs can be difficult to see, it helps if they are manipulated over a bright white surface. A fresh sheet of white printer paper on a desk makes a suitable working area. Good hands-free magnification. Unless you are fortunate enough to have amazing eyesight, you will need a decent magnifier to work with surface-mount components. The “Helping hands” type on a stand are suitable. A very small flat-blade screwdriver. You will need this to hold surface-mount components down while you solder them. A good-quality set of precision metal tweezers. You will need these for picking up, manipulating, and turning over surface-mount devices. A fine-tipped soldering iron. If you have a standard fine tipped iron suitable for use with conventional 0.1” pitch through-hole components then you should be well-equipped.

That said there is one special tool that might be worth your consideration. Holding an SMD device while soldering it can sometimes seem like a task that needs three hands, so one or two tools can be found to help. Fortunately this is something you can build yourself. Take a look at the SMD Beak, a weighted arm for example, or your scribe’s spring clamp third hand.

I’m sorry, this is just beyond my soldering skill level

Desolder braid and plenty of flux are your friends.
Desolder braid and plenty of flux are your friends.

It is easy to imagine when you are looking at an SMD integrated circuit that its pins are just too small and too close together, you couldn’t possibly solder them by hand. The answer is that of course you can, you simply need to view how you solder them in a different way.

With a through-hole IC you solder each 0.1″ pitch pin individually. It is something of a disaster if you manage to put a solder bridge between two pins, and you race for your desolder pump or braid.

With a surface-mount IC by comparison there is little chance that you as a mere mortal could solder each pin individually, so you don’t even try. Instead you solder an entire row at once with an excess of solder, and remove the resulting huge solder bridge with desolder braid to leave a very tidy and professional-looking job. Surface tension and plenty of flux are your friends, and there is very little soldering skill required that you do not already have if you are an experienced through-hole solderer.

If you can hold it down onto the board and see it clearly with your magnifier if necessary, then it doesn’t matter what the component is, you can solder it. Give it a try, you’ll surprise yourself!

What next?

1206 chip discrete components hand-soldered to a PCB
1206 chip discrete components hand-soldered to a PCB

So we hope we’ve convinced you as an SMD doubter, that you have the ability to work with SMDs yourself. What next?

Start by reading up on the subject. Your favourite search engine should deliver, tutorials can be found from Sparkfun, from Adafruit, or from Instructables among many others. And look for videos, YouTube has a huge number of SMD soldering guides.

But there is no substitute for practice. Find a scrap board populated with reasonably-sized surface-mount components, and have a go at reworking it. Desoldering its components may be a bit difficult, but you should easily be able to rework the solder joints. Slather an integrated circuit’s pins with flux, and try running a blob of molten solder along them, then removing the excess with desolder braid. The great thing about a scrap board is that it doesn’t matter if you damage it, so you can practice these techniques to your heart’s content until you are satisfied with your new-found skill.

So you’re ready to move forward, and make your first SMD project. Well done! What you do next is up to you. Design your own circuit and get a PCB made, buy a kit, or find an SMD project you like on with downloadable PCB files and order your own.

Whatever you do, be happy that you’ve conquered your SMD fears, and resolve to be first in the queue to try any new technology in the future!

Clearly the Best Way to Organize SMD Parts

Have some plexiglas (acrylic) leftovers lying around? Well, they could be put to good use in making this SMD organizer. It comes in handy if you deal with a lot of SMD components in your work. No longer will you waste your time trying to find a 15K 1206 resistor, or that BAS85 diode… or any other component you can think of soldering on the PCB. The basic idea is fairly straightforword, which helped keep this short.

2SMD resistors are packed in thick paper tapes that don’t bend easily, and thus need larger containers than other components, which are packed mainly in flexible PE tapes. The first version of this organizer was built with a 96mm diameter space for resistors and 63mm diameter for other components, but it seems that there is no need for such large compartments. If I were to make it again, I would probably scale everything down to about 80% of it’s current size.

The best way to join all plexiglass parts is to use four M4 threaded rods. There is also a 1.5mm steel rod which holds SMD tape ends in place and helps to un-stick the transparent tape which covers the components. At the top of the organizer there is a notch for paper, used for components labels. Most SMD components are packed in 8mm wide tapes, making the optimal compartment width 10mm. It is not easy to cut the 10mm thick acrylic and get a neat edge – instead, you could use more layers of thin sheets to make the spacers. Using 5mm acrylic you can combine more layers for any width of tape, which contains wider components, like SMD integrated circuits. The only thing that you have to be careful about, is to keep the distance between the thin steel rod and acrylic, which is marked as “2-4mm” on the drawing. It is good if this space is just a few tenths of a millimeter wider than the thickness of SMD tapes.

smd_orthoThe CorelDraw file that can be used for laser cutting the acrylic parts, is available for download. If you scale the profiles, don’t forget to readjust the hole diameters and some other dimensions which have to remain intact. If you have 5mm acrylic pieces, you should probably use two layers of acrylic for every tape (red parts on the drawing). The barrier layers would be made of thin acrylic — for instance 2mm (the blue parts). Edge layers (green) are once again 5mm thick, and there are also the end pieces (yellow), glued to the previous borders and used to “round up” the whole construction and to protect your hands from the threaded rods and nuts.

While you’re building this for your bench, make a vacuum picking tool for SMDs out of a dispensing syringe with a thick needle. It’s a common trick for hackers to use an aquarium air pump, just turn the compressor unit by 180°, so that it creates vacuum instead of blowing the air outside. This process is described by R&TPreppers in the video below.

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