“LEDs improve everything.” Words to live by. Most everything that Debra Ansell of [GeekMomProjects] makes is bright, bold, and blinky. But if you’re looking for a simple string of WS2812s, you’re barking up the wrong tree. In the last few years, Debra has been making larger and more complicated assemblies, and that has meant diving into the mechanical design of modular PCBs. In the process Debra has come up with some great techniques that you’ll be able to use in your own builds, which she shared with us in a presentation during the 2021 Hackaday Remoticon.
She starts off with a quick overview of the state of play in PCB art, specifically of the style that she’s into these days: three dimensional constructions where the physical PCB itself is a sculptural element of the project. She’s crossing that with the popular triangle-style wall hanging sculpture, and her own fascination with “inner glow” — side-illuminated acrylic diffusers. Then she starts taking us down the path of creating her own wall art in detail, and this is where you need to listen up.
For instance, getting a PCB made with white soldermask — perhaps because you like its reflective qualities — is more expensive than standard green or even black. Debra’s hack? Silkscreen is free. Solid white silk over a black mask looks just like a white PCB to us! She breaks down the retail prices of her materials for us, comparing PCB with acrylic. PCBs end up being about 50% more expensive per square cm than raw acrylic stock, but unless cutting and shaping that acrylic is free, it’s probably a wash. Plus if you have any electronics that needs mounting, you might as well just go with the PCB.
The heart of this talk, though, is about something that’s not so high-tech, but is make-or-break for any project that involves multiple working parts: connectors. (Check out her take on why looking for the right connector is like online dating!) After working through all the design trade-offs, she comes up with her own.
Spoiler alert: the custom PCBs are connected together with more custom PCBs! The sandwich of acrylic standoffs, pressure connectors, and PCB material ticks all the boxes: mechanical stability, budget friendliness, and good looks.
Debra closes out with an overview of her more recent work. You’ll learn why not to use dollhouse hinges as connectors on a wearable bracelet, the pros and cons of soldering PCBs together versus using custom connectors, how to make a snake out of boards connected by custom slip rings, and even see a brand new design: her Light Tiles 2.0. If you’re not inspired to make something blink, or to make a modular construction from multiple PCBs, we don’t know what it’ll take!
Debra has also posted up the talk’s slides if you want to follow along at home.