A Guide To Milling PCBs At Home

If you keep up with various retro vacuum tube projects, you probably have run across [UsagiElectric] aka [David]’s various PCBs that he makes on his own Bridgeport EZ-Track 3-axis milling machine — massively oversized for the job, as he puts it. In a recent video, [David] walks us through the steps of making a sample PCB, introducing the various tools and procedures of his workflow. He points out that these are the tools he uses, but the overall process should be similar no matter what tools you use.

  • Logisim to validate logic designs
  • TINA-TI, Texas Instrument’s version of the TINA SPICE simulator
  • DesignSpark PCB for schematic entry and PCB layout
  • FlatCAM, a computer-aided PCB manufacturing tool

For this video, [David] makes a half-adder circuit out of four vacuum tubes plus a seven-segment VFD tube to show the combined sum and carry outputs. Momentary switches are used to generate the two addends. Using this example, he proceeds to design, simulate, build and demonstrate a working circuit board. We like his use of the machined pin socket inserts for building a vacuum tube socket directly into the board.

Now this process isn’t for everyone. First of all, a Bridgeport mill is a pretty good sized, and heavy, tool. That said, these procedures should adapt well to other milling machines and engravers. We should point out that [David] is making boards mostly for vacuum tubes, where circuit trace width and spacing distances are generous. If you’re planning to make home PCBs for a 273-pin PGA chip, this isn’t the technique for you.

It seems that the bulk of [David]’s vacuum tube PCBs are single-sided, and reasonably so. They use wire links here and there to jump over traces. Adapting this process to double-sided PCBs is doable, but more complex. Are you milling double-sided boards in your lab? If so, let us know about it in the comments below.

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An array of 3D-printed parts for old sewing machines.

Printed Sewing Machine Parts Extend Singer’s Range

[Grow Your Own Clothes] had finally found their ideal sewing machine for doing zig-zag stitches (/\/\/\) and converting to a treadle drive (mechanically foot-fed) — a Singer 411G. This is a well-respected workhorse of a machine, and if you see one in a secondhand store, you might want to grab it. The only problem is that its multi-step zig-zag stitch is a 4-stepper and not a 3-step, which is what [GYOC] prefers. Having heard it was possible to hack them into doing a 3-step, [GYOC] set out to learn Tinkercad and grow their own sewing machine parts.

A 3D-printed cam lets this machine do the zig-zag in three steps instead of four.
The new zig-zag top hat cam in place.

So once upon a time, sewing machines didn’t just do a bunch of things out of the box. They needed an array of plastic cams to do different stitches, kind of like trading out the element or disk in a typewriter to print in italics. While most machines still have exchangeable feet for different needs and special parts for sewing things like buttonholes, most domestics now have decorative stitches and their cams built in.

The 3-step zig-zag cam was just the beginning. [GYOC] decided to make a few more parts before their Tinkercad knowledge faded: a needle adapter with an improved design, some tension stud sprockets for a different machine, and a couple of buttonhole templates for making different sizes with a buttonholer. Although they aren’t giving away the files for free, all of these parts are available quite cheaply in their Shapeways store.

Got an old machine you don’t know what to do with? Try converting it to a computerized embroidery machine.

Thanks for the tip, [Raphael]!

Mechanical 7-segment display

A One-Servo Mechanical Seven-Segment Display

The seven-segment display may be a bit prosaic after all these years, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to spice it up. Coming up with a mechanical version of the typical photon-based display is a popular project, of which we’ve seen plenty of examples over the years. But this seven-segment display is quite a mechanical treat, and a unique way to flip through the digits.

With most mechanical displays, we’re used to seeing the state of each segment changed with some kind of actuator, like a solenoid or servo. [Shinsaku Hiura] decided on a sleeker design using a 3D-printed barrel carrying one cam for each segment. Each hinged segment is attached to an arm that acts as a follower, riding on its cam and flipping on or off in a set pattern. Which digit is displayed depends on the position of the barrel, which is controlled with a single servo and a pair of gears. It trades mechanical complexity for electrical simplicity and overall elegance, and as you can see from the video below, it’s pretty snappy.

We think the best part of this build is figuring out the shape of the cams. We wonder how they compare to the cam profiles in [Greg Zumwalt]’s mechanical display; it uses two separate discs with grooves, but the principle is pretty much the same.

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When The Right Tool Is Wrong

I’m a firm believer in using the right tool for the job. And one of the most fantastic things about open-source software tools is that nothing stops you from trying them all. For instance, I’ve been going back and forth between a couple, maybe three, CAD/CAM tools over the past few weeks. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and so if I’m doing a simpler job, I use the simpler software, because it’s quicker and, well, simpler. But I’ve got to cut it out, at least for a while, and I’ll tell you why.

The first of the packages is FreeCAD, and it’s an extremely capable piece of CAD/CAM software. It can do everything, or so it seems. But it’s got a long shallow learning curve, and I’m only about halfway up. I’m at the stage where I should be hammering out simple “hello world” parts for practice. I say, I should be.

Fortunately/unfortunately, some Hackaday readers introduced me to KrabzCAM through the comments. It’s significantly less feature-full than FreeCAD, but it gets the job of turning your wife’s sketches of bunnies into Easter decorations done in a jiffy. For simple stuff like that, it’s a nice simple tool, and is the perfect fit for 2D CAM jobs. It’s got some other nice features, and it handles laser engraving nicely as well. And that’s the problem.

Doing the simple stuff with KrabzCAM means that when I do finally turn back to FreeCAD, I’m working on a more challenging project — using techniques that I’m not necessarily up to speed on. So I’ll put the time in, but find myself still stumbling over the introductory “hello world” stuff like navigation and project setup.

I know — #first-world-hacker-problems. “Poor Elliot has access to too many useful tools, with strengths that make them fit different jobs!” And honestly, I’m stoked to have so many good options — that wasn’t the case five years ago. But in this case, using the right tool for the job is wrong for me learning the other tool.

On reflection, this is related to the never-try-anything-new-because-your-current-tools-work-just-fine problem. And the solution to that one is to simply bite the bullet and stick it out with FreeCAD until I get proficient. But KrabzCAM works so well for those small 2D jobs…

A hacker’s life is hard.

Motorcycle Needs Custom Latching Switches For Turn Signals

While modern cars have been getting all kinds of fancy features like touch screens, Bluetooth, crumple zones, and steering wheel controls, plenty of motorcycles have remained firmly in the past. Some might have extra options like a fuel gauge or even ABS if you’re willing to spend extra, but a good percentage of them have the bare minimum equipment required by law. That equipment is outdated and ripe for some improvements too, like this ergonomic custom turn signal switch built with custom latching switches.

Since motorcycle turn signals don’t self-cancel like car signals the rider has to cancel it themselves, usually by pushing an inconveniently tiny button. This assembly consists of four separate switches, two of which control the left and right turn signals. Since both can’t be on at the same time, they include circuitry that can detect their position and a small motor that can physically de-latch them if the other one is pressed. The entire assembly is 3D printed, including the latching mechanism, and they are tied together with a small microcontroller for the controls.

The truly impressive part of this build is the miniaturization, since all four buttons have to be reached with the thumb without removing the hand from the handlebar. The tiny circuitry and mechanical cam for latching are impressive and worth watching the video for. And, if you need more ergonomic improvements for your motorcycle there are also some options for cruise control as well, another feature often lacking in motorcycles.

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Open Source CAM Software In The Browser

3D printers, desktop CNC mills/routers, and laser cutters have made a massive difference in the level of projects the average hacker can tackle. Of course, these machines would never have seen this level of adoption if you had to manually write G-code, so CAM software had a big part to play. Recently we found out about an open-source browser-based CAM pack created by [Stewert Allen] named Kiri:Moto, which can generate G-code for all your desktop CNC platforms.

To get it out of the way, Kiri:Moto does not run in the cloud. Everything happens client-side, in your browser. There are performance trade-offs with this approach, but it does have the inherent advantages of being cross-platform and not requiring any installation. You can click the link above and start generating tool paths within seconds, which is great for trying it out. In the machine setup section you can choose CNC mill, laser cutter, FDM printer, or SLA printer. The features for CNC should be perfect for 90% of your desktop CNC needs. The interface is intuitive, even if you don’t have any previous CAM experience. See the video after the break for a complete breakdown of the features, complete with timestamp for the different sections.

All the required features for laser cutting are present, and it supports a drag knife. If you want to build an assembly from layers of laser-cut parts, Kiri:Moto can automatically slice the 3D model and nest the 2D parts on the platform. The slicer for 3D printing is functional, but probably won’t be replacing our regular slicer soon. It places heavy emphasis on manually adding supports, and belt printers like the Ender CR30 are already supported.

Kiri:Moto is being actively improved, and it looks as though [Stewart] is very responsive to community inputs. The complete source code is available on GitHub, and you can run an instance on your local machine if you prefer to do so. Continue reading “Open Source CAM Software In The Browser”

Print-in-Place Connectors Aim To Make Wiring Easier

One thing some of us here in the United States have always been jealous of is the WAGO connectors that seem so common in electrical wiring everywhere else in the world. We often wonder why the electrical trades here haven’t adopted them more widely — after all, they’re faster to use than traditional wire nuts, and time is money on the job site.

Wago 221 compact lever connector via the Wago YouTube channel

This print-in-place electrical connector is inspired by the WAGO connectors, specifically their Lever Nut series. We’ll be clear right up front that [Tomáš “Harvie” Mudruňka’s] connector is more of an homage to the commercially available units, and should not be used for critical applications. Plus, as a 3D-printed part, it would be hard to compete with something optimized to be manufactured in the millions. But the idea is pretty slick. The print-in-place part has a vaguely heart-shaped cage with a lever arm trapped inside it.

After printing and freeing the lever arm, a small piece of 1.3-mm (16 AWG) solid copper wire is inserted into a groove. The wire acts as a busbar against which the lever arm squeezes conductors. The lever cams into a groove on the opposite wall of the cage, making a strong physical and electrical connection. The video below shows the connectors being built and tested.

We love the combination of print-in-place, compliant mechanisms, and composite construction on display here. It reminds us a bit of these printable SMD tape tamers, or this print-in-place engine benchmark.

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