Hackaday Prize Entry: PCBs On Demand with Etchr

The ambitious etchr – the PCB Printer is just a concept at the moment, but it’s not often we see someone trying to tackle desktop PCB production in a new way. Creator [Jonathan Beri] is keenly aware that when it comes to creating electronics, the bottleneck for most workflows is the PCB itself. Services like OSH Park make professionally fabricated PCBs accessible at a low cost, but part of the bargain is that turnaround times are often measured in weeks.

[Jonathan]’s concept for etchr is a small system that automates not only etching a copper-clad board with all the attendant flooding and draining of chemicals, but applying a solder mask and silkscreen layer labeling as well. The only thing left to do would be to drill any required holes.

The idea behind etchr is to first take a copper-clad board with photoresistive film or spray applied to it, and fix it into a frame. A UV projector takes care of putting the traces pattern onto the board (and also handles a UV-curable solder mask in a later step) and the deep frame doubles as a receptacle for any chemical treatments such as the etching and cleaning. It’s an ambitious project, but the processes behind each step are well-understood and bringing them all together in a single machine is an intriguing approach.

Desktop production of PCBs can be done in a few ways, including etching via the toner transfer method (whose results our own Elliot Williams clearly explained how to take from good to great). An alternative is to mill the PCBs out directly, a job a tool like the Othermill is designed specifically to do. It’s interesting to see an approach that includes applying a solder mask.

Fail of the Week: Marginally Documented Pad Shorts to Maskless PCB

[Erich Styger] was bit by a nasty gotcha when soldering a QFN surface mount chip. The problem rears its ugly head when combining a chip possessing a padless conductor and a PCB without a solder mask. As you can see in the image above, there is a conductor exiting the side of the plastic QFN, but there is no pad associated with it. For this reason, you won’t see the conductor documented in the datasheet as a pin. It is documented in the mechanical drawing of the package, without any explicit reference to its existence. This is the Jason Bourne of package quirks.

The PCB layout just happens to have a trace exiting right under this conductor. The two aren’t touching, but without solder mask, a bit of melted metal was able to mind the gap and connect the two conductors. [Eric] notes that although the non-pad isn’t documented, it’s easy to prove that it is connected to ground and was effectively pulling down the signal on that trace.

In a recent article on Hackaday I talked about “dangling pointers” and the challenge when interrupts expose the bug. [Erich’s] covered a ton of posts about embedded software. I was doing some poking around and was delighted to find that he covered the same concept and a solution for it using a program called cppcheck.

Circuit Love With Multicolor Solder Masks

The cheapest PCBs – and therefore most common – are green solder mask with white silkscreen. It works, but it’s also incredibly boring. This is the way things were done up until a few years ago with the explosion of board houses trying to compete for your Yuan, and now getting a red, yellow, black, blue, green, and even OSH purple is possible. This doesn’t mean multiple solder masks aren’t possible, as [Saar] demonstrates with his demonstration of multicolor solder masks and circuit love.

We’ve seen a lot of [Saar]’s designs, including a mixing desk, a cordwood puzzle, and an engineer’s emergency business card, but so far his artistic pieces have been decidedly monochromatic. For this build, [Saar] teamed up with Eurocircuits to create a board that exploits their capabilities.

Althought Eurocircuits has PCB PIXture, a tool for putting graphics on PCBs, [Saar] made this with his own tool, PCBmodE.  The design of both the red and yellow variants are abstract, and only meant to be a demonstration of what can be done with multicolor solder mask. It looks great with five backlit LEDs, and with an acrylic top and bottom, makes a great coaster or art piece.

We like [Saar’s] work so much that we put his Cordwood puzzle in the Hackaday Store.

DIY Circuit Boards Look Professional

Professional Looking DIY PCB Boards

Making PCBs at home is a great means to get your prototype up and running without having to wait weeks for a professionally made board. Regardless if these prototype boards are milled or etched, they are easily identified as ‘home brew’ due to their ‘unfinished’ appearance. [HomeDIY&Stuff] has put together a little how-to on the process for making DIY PCBs look a little closer to a professionally manufactured board.

The process starts out with designing the board in a PCB program. There are a lot of these programs available. Eagle is a popular choice and has a free version available. Once the layout it finalized, the design is printed out on a transparent sheet of plastic. A blank copper-clad PCB board that already has a UV sensitive coating applied are available for purchase and is what is used in this example. The transparency is placed over the PCB blank and then exposed to UV light. The coating on the PCB cures where ever the UV light passes through the open areas of the transparency.

Once the transparency is removed, there is a noticeable difference in coating color where it has cured. This board is now placed in a developer solution that removes the un-cured UV sensitive coating. A Ferric Chloride acid bath then etches away at the now-exposed copper. The cured coating from the previous step protects the copper at the trace locations during the etch process. The result is a board with copper where you want it and none where you don’t. If the board has any through-hole components, this would be the time to drill those holes.

Up to this point the process has been pretty standard for homemade PCBs and the next part is certainly the most interesting but, unfortunately, is also the worst documented step; the solder mask and silk screening. It appears that two silk screens are produced, one for the solder mask and one for the silk screen. The artwork for making the silk screens can be output from the PCB design software. There is no mention of the solder mask material used but oil-based silk screen ink is specified. Although the details are lacking, the photos show that it works pretty well. If you have had any experience with silk screening DIY PCBs, let us know in the comments.

One-Off Kapton Solder Masks

soldermask

With the proliferation of desktop routers, and a number of easy methods to create PCBs at home, there’s no reason anyone should ever have to buy a pre-made breakout board ever again. The traditional techniques only give you a copper layer, however, and if you want a somewhat more durable PCB, you’ll have figure out some way to create a solder mask on your homebrew PCBs. [Chris] figured Kapton tape would make a reasonable soldermask, and documented the process of creating one with a laser cutter over on the Projects site.

The solder mask itself is cut from a piece of Kapton tape, something that should be found in any reasonably well-stocked tinkerer’s toolbox. The software for [Chris]’ laser cutter, a Universal Laser Systems model, already has a setting for mylar film that came in handy for the Kapton tape,

Of course, getting the correct shapes and dimensions for the laser to cut required a bit of fooling around in Eagle and Corel Draw. The area the laser should cut was taken from the tCream and tStop layers in Eagle with a 1 mil pullback from the edges of the pads. This was exported to an .EPS file, opened in Corel Draw, and turned into a line art drawing for the laser cutter.

The result is a fast and easy solder mask that should be very durable. While it’s probably not as durable as the UV curing paints used in real PCBs, Kapton will be more than sufficient for a few prototypes before spinning a real board.

Polyurethane protecting PCBs

PCB

What you see above is a home-made PCB. No, this isn’t an example of a terrible toner transfer job, but rather evidence of the ravages of time. This board is seven years old, and the corrosion and broken traces show it. Luckily, [George] already has seven years of environmental data for a cheap DIY soldermask.

Seven years ago, [George] took a piece of copper clad board, masked half of it off, and sprayed it with fast drying polyurethane. After drying, he put it on a shelf in his garage. The results were fairly surprising – the uncovered portion is covered in verdigris, while the coated half is still shiny and new.

[George] took this a bit further and experimented with other spray can coverings. He found Testors spray enable worked just like the polyurethane, burning off when the heat of a soldering iron was applied, and also passed for a professional PCB.

Put a solder mask on those homebrew PCBs

While making your own PCBs at home is one of the best marks of a competent builder, if you want to give your project a more professional vibe, you’re going to need to do better than bare copper traces on a piece of fiberglass. To help out his fellow makers, [Chris] sent in his Instructable on creating a solder mask for homemade circuit boards using a minimal amount of tools and materials easily sourced from the Internet.

[Chris]’ soldermasks are made from UV curing paints he found on eBay. Of course the traditional green paint is available, along with paints very similar to the Sparkfun red or Arduino blue soldermasks.

After brushing the soldermask paint onto his home-etched circuit board, [Chris] printed out the solder mask onto a piece of transparency film using a laser printer. This mask is vitally important if you ever plan to solder your board; by covering the pads you wish to solder, the paint won’t cure and can later be removed.

[Chris] cured his soldermask by leaving it in the sun for a half hour. After the paint was dry, he removed the excess paint covering the pads with a little bit of turpentine and some elbow grease.

While [Chris]’ paint had somewhat of an ugly matte finish, the soldermask does its job, protecting the PCB traces while leaving the pads uncovered and ready to solder.