Remoticon 2021 // Debra Ansell Connects PCB In Ways You Didn’t Expect

“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.

21 thoughts on “Remoticon 2021 // Debra Ansell Connects PCB In Ways You Didn’t Expect

  1. “LEDs improve everything,” is exactly what marketers think. Of course, it has to an ULTRA BRIGHT BLUE LED that is ALWAYS active, just to inform you the damn thing is turned on.

    *deep breath* I’m going to have to disagree with the assertion.

    1. The assertion, or the execution? Only stepping in here, because I feel like you’ve redefined my statement before choosing to disagree with it. I’ll clarify. I wholeheartedly concur that a single, unchanging, ultra bright LED improves nothing. Execution is everything. But “LEDs, well considered and executed, improve everything” Isn’t nearly as pithy, or easy to say. Context is also everything.

      1. I have reached an age where midnight toilet visits are routine.
        On those trips, there are enough stray LEDs in the house that I don’t need to turn on lights.

        Don’t knock the ultra bright LED’s !

        1. If you want a novel way to find your way thru a bathroom at night, might I recommend glow in the dark 3d printing filament? I’ve got a Benchy sitting next to the sink, printed in glow eSun pla pro – sadly I’ve heard they changed something about their pla pro process in the last year so new stuff might not be as easy or reliable to print – but with no direct sunlight, that thing can actually cast light on its surroundings for a few hours after dark and be clearly visible as glowing all night 😉.

          Anyway, aside from that tangent, this looks so cool, love that it’s a shorter video, may actually have time to watch the whole thing 😁. I feel like “Solder mask is free” is a superpower that must be used carefully lest it become no longer true…

    2. What ULTRA BRIGHT BLUE LED did you so dirty in the past? Seriously though, I get having a great dislike for something, but this level of absolute hatred for something is lost on me lol.

      1. For me it’s the blue led on my computer case, that is always on when the PC is on, what’s worse is when you put the PC to sleep the light blinks on and off. Since I stay in a small room at uni, if I try to put my PC to sleep and try to sleep myself it is impossible, with that flashing blue light. I had electrical tape on it for a while but then realized that switching the bios to dual colour led mode fixed the problem. I also don’t get why it needs a led to show disk activity, it just blinks constantly, I’ve never thought, ” hey let me just check my disk activity by looking at an led”. My PC has RGB fans so I know when it’s on, I don’t need an extra obnoxious blue led that doesn’t switch off when the computer sleeps like the fans do.

        1. Wait you’ve never looked at the disk activity LED to see if the computer was crashed or just busy? I sometimes miss having a storage activity light, though since I’m mostly Linux now, have 32GB ram and an early oom killer, I don’t get into that situation as much anymore. Was absolutely essentially back in the day if you managed to have a hard drive that didn’t make obnoxious noises, though.

      2. It’s that manufactures have decided to use them as status indicators. Specifically for the “I’m plugged into the wall and in sleep mode!” status.

        It’s mostly due to how our eyes deal with darkness and how sensitive they are to different wavelengths. A dimmer red LED would be a much better choice for a sleep mode on any device.

    3. I have to agree with you. When blue LEDs came out, for some reason, they had to sullenly be included in everything. That was neat – until we realized that it’s damn hard for some people to sleep with even one in a room, because they splash light everywhere, even when turned away from the user. I wish LEDs were smaller, and used much more sparingly.

  2. Thanks, gave me plenty of new ideas to think about implementing for future projects. Pretty much everything presented can be applied in one form or another for a number of projects I’ve in my to do sketchbook.

  3. Excellent talk, with some nice ideas in it. I’m impressed with how well the black led acrylic (at least I assume that’s what it is on the bangle) looks when side-lit. Definitely a snippet of info to file away!

  4. Just a tip if any one needs something to twist/turn and have a connection look at using rj11 antitangle connectors or if you need many connections a used clockspring from a old steering wheel from a car. It was a good talk and fun to see the full circle back to just soldering the pcbs together.

  5. That was really interesting, thanks Debra!

    These tiles are looking really good, and that soldermask vs silkscreen bit was HILARIOUS :D

    I thought the use of those compression contacts, IIRC normally used for contacting/grounding EMI shielding, was neat. Was that one of the AMP/Tyco parts? I might have missed the part number, but it looks like one we were considering at work… tho for EMI shielding.

    I have a question about the PCB fab process you are using in conjunction with those contacts, mostly because this comes close to something I’ve had to think about for a project at work. Did you get a hard gold finish on the contact points of your triangle PCBs, where the above compression contacts hit? If not, I would be super curious to know roughly how many mating cycles you are getting before the (is it ENIG?) plating starts to wear through. I figure that, what with playing around with reconfiguring the tiles numerous times, you might start to have some data. My stuff at work has had exactly two mating cycles per board, so not really a bunch of data from my end, and additionally my compression contacts are *much smaller* and lower current than yours.

    Maybe something to talk about in your next project update?

    PS let me know if you want to talk about this… I’m sure you and I have lots of overlap in parts we’ve looked at, and prob some outliers, too


  6. I’ve done the exact same thing. I made various shaped PCB only used for connection between hexagon shaped neuron boards but I used screws and pem nuts. Kinda like a grown up toy set.

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