Laser Blasts Out High-Quality PCBs

With how cheap and how fast custom PCBs have gotten, it almost doesn’t make sense to roll your own anymore, especially when you factor in the messy etching steps and the less than stellar results. That’s not the only way to create a PCB, of course, and if you happen to have access to a 20-Watt fiber laser, you can get some fantastic homemade PCBs that are hard to tell from commercial boards.

Lucikly, [Saulius Lukse] of Kurokesu fame has just such a laser on hand, and with a well-tuned toolchain and a few compromises, he’s able to turn out 0.1-mm pitch PCBs in 30 minutes. The compromises include single-sided boards and no through-holes, but that should still allow for a lot of different useful designs. The process starts with Gerbers going through FlatCAM and then getting imported into EZCAD for the laser. There’s a fair bit of manual tweaking before the laser starts burning away the copper between the traces, which took about 20 passes for 0.035-mm foil on FR4. We have to admit that watching the cutting proceed in the video below is pretty cool.

Once the traces are cut, UV-curable solder resist is applied to the whole board. After curing, the board goes back to the laser for another pass to expose the pads. A final few passes with the laser turned up to 11 cuts the finished board free. We wonder why the laser isn’t used to drill holes; we understand that vias would be hard to connect to the other side, but it seems like through-hole components could be supported. Maybe that’s where [Saulius] is headed with this eventually, since there are traces that terminate in what appears to be via pads.

Whatever the goal, these boards are really slick. We usually see lasers used to remove resist prior to traditional etching, so this is a nice change.

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Micromachining Glass With A Laser — Very, Very Slowly

When it comes to machining, the material that springs to mind is likely to be aluminum, steel, or plastic. We don’t necessarily think of glass as a material suitable for machining, at least not in the chuck-it-up-in-the-lathe sense. But glass is a material that needs to be shaped, too, and there are a bunch of different ways to accomplish that. Few, though, are as interesting as micromachining glass with laser-induced plasma bubbles. (Video, embedded below.)

The video below is from [Zachary Tong]. It runs a bit on the longish side, but we found it just chock full of information. The process, formally known as “laser-induced backside wet-etching,” uses a laser to blast away at a tank of copper sulfate. When a piece of glass is suspended on the surface of the solution and the laser is focused through the glass from the top, some interesting things happen.

The first pulse of the laser vaporizes the solution and decomposes the copper sulfate. Copper adsorbs onto the glass surface inside the protective vapor bubble, which lasts long enough for a second laser pulse to come along. That pulse heats up the adsorbed copper and the vapor in the original bubble, enough to melt a tiny bit of the glass. As the process is repeated, small features are slowly etched into the underside of the glass. [Zachary] demonstrates all this in the video, as well as what can go wrong when the settings are a bit off. There’s also some great high-speed footage of the process that’s worth the price of admission alone.

We doubt this process will be a mainstream method anytime soon, not least because it requires a 50-Watt Nd:YAG fiber laser. But it’s an interesting process that reminds us of [Zachary]’s other laser explorations, like using a laser and Kapton to make graphene supercapacitors.

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Hackaday Links: September 13, 2020

Like pretty much every other big conference, the Chaos Communication Conference is going virtual this year. What was supposed to be 37C3 has been rebranded as rC3, the remote Chaos Experience. It’s understandable, as a 17,000 person live event would have not only been illegal but a bit irresponsible in the current environment. The event appears to be a hybrid of small local events hosted in hackerspaces linked with streamed talks and a program of workshops and “online togetherness.” rC3 is slated to run in the week between Christmas and New Year, and it seems like a great way to wrap up 2020.

Speaking of remote conferences, don’t forget about our own Remoticon. While it won’t be quite the same as everyone getting together in sunny — historically, at least — Pasadena for a weekend of actual togetherness, it’s still going to be a great time. The event runs November 6 to 8; we’ve had a sneak peek at the list of proposed workshops and there’s some really cool stuff. Prepare to be dazzled, and make sure you keep up on the Remoticon announcements — you really don’t want to miss this.

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Transform Kicad Design To Patchwork For Isolation Routing

Tuning a desktop router and your board designs for isolation routing can be a bit tricky, with thin traces usually being the first victim. For simple prototype boards you usually don’t need tightly packed traces, you just want to isolate the nets. To do this with a minimum amount of routing, [Michael Schembri] created kicad-laser-min, a command-line utility that takes a Kicad PCB design and expands all the tracks and pads to their maximum possible width.

Laser scribed PCB with maximum track widths

The software takes one layer of the PCB layout, converts it to black and white, and then runs a C++ Voronoi algorithm on it to dilate each track and pad until it meets another expanding region. Each region is colourised, and OpenCV edge detection is used to produce the contours that need to be milled or etched. A contour following algorithm is then used to create the G-code. The header image shows the output of each step.

Full source code is available on GitHub. [Michael] has had good results with his own boards, which are scribed using a laser cutter before etching, but welcomes testing and feedback from other users. He has found that OpenCV doesn’t always completely close all the contours, but the gaps are usually smaller than the engraving width of his laser, so no shorts are created.

This is basically “Scribble style” prototyping with CAD and CNC tools. If you prefer scribe and etch, you might consider building a simple PCB shaker for faster etching. If you have a router but want to avoid the dust, you can use a carbide scribe to scratch out the tracks without needing to etch.

Making PCBs The Easy Way

Building a PCB at home can be fraught. If you’re etching, there are chemicals and the nuances of toner transfer. If you’re milling, getting the surface height just right, and not breaking those pointy little v-cutters is always a challenge. [Robin] has tips for both of these cases, and solves a lot of the common hassles by using a milling machine.

Whether he’s scraping away etch resist or entire copper isolation lines, [Robin] uses a non-spinning scratching tool instead of a v-bit: they’re more robust and cut every bit as well. He’s got tips for using FlatCam and KiCAD to make scratched-out traces. His registration system allows him to get double-sided boards with a minimum of hassle. And as a bonus, he’s doing some experimentation with embedding SMT parts inside the boards as well. Be sure that you check out his whole guide, or just watch the video embedded below.

We’re pretty sure you’ll pick up a trick or two, and maybe you’ll be convinced to bite the bullet and invest in a nice mill. If you’d like a more traditional take on PCB milling, try out our own [Adil Malik]’s guide.

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[Ben Krasnow] Rolls Old School Camera Out For Photolithography

In a time when cameras have been reduced to microchips, it’s ironic that the old view camera, with its bellows and black cloth draped over the viewscreen for focusing, endures as an icon for photography. Such technology appears dated and with no application in the modern world, but as [Ben Krasnow] shows us, an old view camera is just the thing when you want to make homemade microchips. (Video, embedded below.)

Granted, the photolithography process [Ben] demonstrates in the video below is quite a bit upstream from the creation of chips. But mastering the process on a larger scale is a step on the way. The idea is to create a high-resolution photograph of a pattern — [Ben] chose both a test pattern and, in a nod to the season, an IRS tax form — that can be used as a mask. The camera he chose is a 4×5 view camera, the kind with lens and film connected by adjustable bellows. He found that modifications were needed to keep the film fixed at the focal plane, so he added a vacuum port to the film pack to suck the film flat. Developing film has always been magical, and watching the latent images appear on the film under the red light of the darkroom really brings us back — we can practically smell the vinegary stop solution.

[Ben] also steps through the rest of the photolithography process — spin coating glass slides with photoresist, making a contact print of the negative under UV light, developing the print, and sputtering it with titanium. It’s a fascinating process, and the fact that [Ben] mentions both garage chip-maker [Sam Zeloof] and [Justin Atkin] from the Thought Emporium means that three of our favorite YouTube mad scientists are collaborating. The possibilities are endless.

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Vinyl Cut Your Way Into An Edge-Lit Glass Display

The chances are you’ve seen the myriad cheap copyright-infringing edge-lit acrylic displays from Chinese suppliers everywhere on the internet, and indeed, etching acrylic with a modest CNC laser cutter has become easily viable to a lot of us in more recent years. However, if you want to kick things up a notch, [Michael Vieau] shows us how to build a plaque from scratch using not acrylic, but rather etched glass to make the finished product look that much more professional.

There are a few different steps to this build and each one is beautifully detailed for anyone who wants to follow along. First, the electronics driving the WS2812 lights are designed from scratch based on an ATtiny microcontroller on a PCB designed in Fritzing, and the sources necessary for replicating those at home are all available on [Michael’s] GitHub. He even notes how he custom-built a pogo-pin header at the end of the USBASP programmer to be able to easily use the same ICSP pinout in future projects.

But since a lot of you are likely all too familiar with the ins and outs of your basic Arduino projects, you’ll be more interested in the next steps, detailing how he milled the solid wood base and etched the glass that fits onto it. The process is actually surprisingly simple, all you need is to mask out the design you want through the use of a vinyl cutter and then pouring some etching solution over it. [Michael] recommends double-etching the design for a crisper look, and putting everything together is just as simple with his fastener of choice: hot glue.

Much as there was an age when Nixie displays adorned every piece of equipment, it seems like ease of manufacture is veering us towards an age of edge-lit displays. From word clocks to pendants and badges, we’re delighted to see this style of decoration emerge, including in replacing Nixies themselves!