Near the end of the lifecycle of mass-market commercial product development, an engineering team may come in and make a design for manufacturability (DFM) pass. The goal is to make the device easy, cheap, and reliable to build and actually improve reliability at the same time. We hackers don’t usually take this last step, because when you’re producing just a couple of any given device, it hardly makes sense. But when you release an open-source hardware design to the world, if a lot of people re-build your widget, it might be worth it to consider DFM, or at least a hardware hacker’s version of DFM.
If you want people to make their own versions of your project, make it easy and cheap for them to do so and don’t forget to also make it hackable. This isn’t the same as industrial DFM: rather than designing for 100,000s of boards to be put together by robot assembly machines, you are designing for an audience of penny-pinching hackers, each building your project only once. But thinking about how buildable your design is will still be worthwhile.
In this article, I’m going to touch on a couple of Design for Hackers (DFH) best practices. I really want to hear your experience and desires in the comments. What would you like to see in someone else’s open designs? What drives you nuts when replicating a project? What tricks do you know to make a project easily and cheaply buildable by the average hacker?
In the last episode, we put our circuit boards through the reflow process. Unfortunately, it’s not 100% accurate, and there are often problems that can occur that need to be detected and fixed. That’s what the inspection step is for. One could insert an inspection step after paste, after placement, and after reflow, but the first two are icing on the cake — the phase where most mistakes can be caught is after reflow.
There are a variety of methods for reflowing a circuit board, but they all rely on a single principle: heat up the solder paste (a mixture of flux and solder) until the flux burns off and the solder becomes liquid, and then cool it down. Accomplishing this once or twice is easy; once you’ve played with a hot plate you’ll swear off through hole. Scaling it up and doing it repeatedly with high yield is extremely challenging, though. Continue reading “Tools of the Trade – Reflow”→
[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.
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.
Solder tags aplenty in a commercial transmitter from the early 1960s
Cutting-edge 1970s homebrew
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.
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 Hackaday.io 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!
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!
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.
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 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
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!
So we hope we’ve convinced you as an SMD doubter, that you have the ability to work with SMDs yourself. What next?
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 Hackaday.io 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!
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.
SMD 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.
The 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.
Friday afternoon I had the pleasure of sitting in on a surface mount soldering workshop. I’ve done some surface mount soldering before and am quite adept with a soldering iron, but this focused on solder paste and a hot air pencil. [Bob Cogeshall] ran the workshop and went beyond the most basic information. His experience founding Small Batch Assembly, a contract manufacturer whose offices are in the Nova Labs hackerspace, has led him to learn a lot of tricks of the trade.