Hackaday Superconference: Pushing The Boundaries Of PCB Artwork With Brian Benchoff

The artistic elite exists in a stratum above we hoi polloi, a world of achingly trendy galleries, well-heeled collectors, and art critics who act as gatekeepers to what is considered the pinnacle du jour of culture. Artistic movements that evolve outside this bubble may be derided or ignored as naive and unsophisticated, even in complete denial of their raw creative edge. When they are discovered by the establishment a few of their artists are selected and anointed, while inevitably the crucible in which they were formed is forgotten. On the streets of Bristol the incredible work of far more graffiti artists can be seen than just that of Banksy.

Our community has an art form all of its own, in the guise of PCB artwork and the #BadgeLife community. One day you will see electronic badges from darlings of the art world behind glass in those trendy galleries, but for now they live in glorious abundance in the wild. Here at Hackaday we are lucky enough to have in Brian Benchoff a colleague who is pushing the boundaries of PCB art, and at the Hackaday Superconference he took us through one of his more recent pieces of work.

Brian's pad printer.
Brian’s pad printer.

The colour palette of a typical printed circuit board is limited by the combination of fibreglass, copper, soldermask, plating, and silkscreen its designer selects. Thus while the variety of soldermask colours and plating materials can make for an eye-catching work, they have remained a colour-tinted near monochrome. The Holy Grail of the PCB artist has been to step into the world of full colour, and Brian has been pursuing that goal by exploring pad printing to produce extra colours beyond the sodermask..

It’s a subject he’s written about here in the past, and he introduces it in the talk with a look at existing badge artwork and a mention of an expensive commercial inkjet process before considering the type of printing you see daily on the sides of promotional pens. Those company titles are deposited on pens using pad printing, an offset process in which ink is first deposited upon a photo-etched metal plate before being picked up on a silicone rubber pad for transfer to the object to be printed. It’s not the panacea for all coloured-PCB tasks, but for adding relatively small blocks of pigment to an otherwise monochromatic board it can be very successful.

The eye-catching Kiss -themed Tindie badges.
The eye-catching Kiss -themed Tindie badges.

Brian’s examples are a panelised set of Tindie badges as a homage to the rock band Kiss, and his Tide pod addon containing a serial number in an EEPROM that was part of a Blockchain-inspired game. The Kiss Tindie badges use black soldermask with extensive white silkscreen and a modest area of red pad printing for the stage makeup, while the Tide addon makes clever use of the same swoosh printed in alternate colours at 180 degrees to each other.

In both cases there is some labour involved in creating the prints, and as his detailed write-up of printing the Tide pods reminds us, the process of creating the printing plate is not exactly an easy one. But it remains the best way yet to add extra colours to a board without paying a small fortune for the inkjet process, and if you’d like to put your own designs at the bleeding edge of PCB art you might wish to read his writeups and watch the video below the break.

This is just one example of the kind of manufacturing techniques, and electronic design principles on display at the Hackaday Superconference. There’s another Supercon just around the corner, so grab your ticket and send in your own talk proposal right away!

6 thoughts on “Hackaday Superconference: Pushing The Boundaries Of PCB Artwork With Brian Benchoff

    1. It’s up now.

      Inkjets have the problem that the art can’t go through a reflow oven. Pad printed PCBs can — I put a few tide pods through a tunnel oven and they came out just fine with no bubbling or smearing or anything else. A color laser printer or a solid wax phaser printer might work, but that’s slightly expensive.

      1. A solid wax phaser won’t work. I recently tried laminating a print from one and the heat remelted the ink. Also xerox has unfortunately discontinued them. I wonder if there is some sort of dye sub type process that would work.

      2. That depends on the ink used by the printer. AFAIK PCB “silkscreen” is sometimes printed with inkjet. Desktop and large format sign printers probably don’t use heat resistant inks. A UV cured inks maybe?

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