Fail Of The Week: How Not To Light Pipe

You’d think that something made out of glass and epoxy would transmit a decent amount of light. Unfortunately for [Jeremy Ruhland], it turns out that FR4 is not great light pipe material, at least in one dimension.

The backstory on this has to do with #badgelife, where it has become popular to reverse mount SMD LEDs on areas of PCBs that are devoid of masking, allowing the light to shine through with a warm, diffuse glow – we’ve even featured a through-PCB word clock that uses a similar technique to wonderful effect. [Jeremy]’s idea was to use 0603 SMD LEDs mounted inside non-plated through-holes to illuminate the interior of the board edgewise. It seems like a great idea, almost like the diffusers used to illuminate flat displays from the edge.

Sadly, the light from [Jeremy]’s LEDs just didn’t make it very far into the FR4 before being absorbed – about 15 mm max. That makes for an underwhelming appearance, but all is certainly not lost. Valuable lessons about PCB design were had, like exactly how to get a fab to understand what you’re trying to do with non-plated holes and why you want to fence the entire edge of the board in vias. But best of all, [Jeremy] explored what’s possible with Oreo construction, and came away with ideas for other uses of the method. That counts as a win in our book.

LEDs Shine Through PCB On This Tiny Word Clock

Everyone seems to love word clocks. Maybe it’s the mystery of a blank surface lighting up to piece together the time in fuzzy format, or maybe it hearkens back to those “find-a-word” puzzles that idled away many an hour. Whatever it is, we see a lot of word clock builds, but there’s something especially about this diminutive PCB word clock that we find irresistible.

Like all fun projects, [sjm4306] found himself going through quite the design process with this one. The basic idea – using a PCB as the mask for the character array – is pretty clever. We’ve always found the laser-cut masks to be wanting, particularly in the characters with so-called counters, those enclosed spaces such as those in a capital A or Q that would be removed by a laser cutter. The character mask PCB [sjm4306] designed uses both the copper and a black solder mask to form the letters, which when lit by the array of SMD LEDs behind it glow a pleasing blue-green color against a dark background. Try as he might, though, the light from adjacent cells bled through, so he printed a stand that incorporates baffles for each LED. The clock looks great and even has some value-added modes, such as a falling characters display a la The Matrix, a Pong-like mode, and something that looks a bit like Tetris. Check out the video below for more details.

We’ve seen word clocks run afoul of the counter problem before, some that solved it by resorting to a stencil font, others that didn’t. We’re impressed by this solution, though, enough so that we hope [sjm4306] makes the PCB files available so we can build one.

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CNC Turns A Single PCB Into Origami Hemisphere

Trying to make a hemispherical surface out of a PCB is no easy feat. Trying to do that and make the result a working circuit is even harder. Doing it with one solid piece of FR4 seems impossible, right?

Not so much. [brainsmoke] came up with a clever way to make foldable, working PCBs that can be formed into hemispheres. The inspiration for this came from a larger project that resulted in a 32-cm diameter LED-studded sphere, which a friend thought would make a swell necklace if it was scaled down. That larger sphere was made somewhat like a PCB soccer ball, with individual panels soldered together. [brainsmoke] didn’t relish juggling dozens of tiny PCBs to make a necklace-sized version, so the unfolded pattern for half a deltoidal hexecontahedron was laid out as one piece on single-sided FR4. The etched boards were then cut out on a CNC mill, with the joints between the panels cut as V-grooves from the rear of the board. By leaving just enough material to act as a live hinge, [brainsmoke] was able to fold the pattern up into a hemisphere while leaving the traces intact. The process was fussy and resulted in a lot of broken FR4 and traces, but with practice and the use of thicker board material and heavier copper, the hemisphere came together. The video below shows the final product

This objet d’art is [brainsmoke]’s entry in the Circuit Sculpture Contest, which is just wrapping up wrapped up last week. We can’t wait to share some of the cool things people came up with in this contest, which really seemed to get the creative juices flowing.

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CNC Machine Most Satisfyingly Mills Double-Sided PCBs

We know that by this point in the development of CNC technology, nothing should amaze us. We’ve seen CNC machines perform feats of precision that shouldn’t be possible, whether it be milling a complex jet engine turbine blade or just squirting out hot plastic. But you’ve just got to watch this PCB milling CNC machine go through its paces!

The machine is from an outfit called WEGSTR, based in the Czech Republic. While it appears to be optimized for PCB milling and drilling, the company also shows it milling metals, wood, plastic, and even glass. The first video below shows the machine milling 0.1 mm traces in FR4; the scale of the operation only becomes apparent when a gigantic toothbrush enters the frame to clear away a little swarf. As if that weren’t enough, the machine then cuts traces on the other side of the board; vias created by filling drilled holes with copper rivets and peening them over with a mandrel and a few light hammer taps connect the two sides.

Prefer your boards with solder resist and silkscreening? Not a problem, at least judging by the second video, which shows a finished board getting coated with UV-cure resist and then having the machine mill away just the resist on the solder pads. We’re not sure how they deal with variations in board thickness or warping, but they sure have it dialed in. Regardless of how they optimized the process, it’s a pleasure to watch.

At about $2,600, these are not cheap machines, but they may make sense for someone needing high-quality boards with rapid turnaround. And who’s to say a DIY machine couldn’t do as good a job? We’ve seen plenty of them before, and covered the pros and cons of etching versus milling too.

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Epoxy Fix For A Combusted PCB

When the Magic Smoke is released, chances are pretty good that you’ve got some component-level diagnosis to do. It’s usually not that hard to find the faulty part, charred and crusty as it likely appears. In that case, some snips, a new non-crusty part, and a little solder are usually enough to get you back in business.

But what if the smoke came not from a component but from the PCB itself? [Happymacer] chanced upon this sorry situation in a power supply for an electric gate opener. Basking in the Australian sunshine for a few years, the opener started acting fussy at first, then not acting at all. Inspection of its innards revealed that some unlucky ants had shorted across line and neutral on the power supply board, which burned not only the traces but the FR4 of the board as well. Rather than replace the entire board, [Happymacer] carefully removed the carbonized (and therefore conductive) fiberglass and resin, leaving a gaping hole in the board. He fastened a patch for the hole from some epoxy glue; Araldite is the brand he used, but any two-part epoxy, like JB Weld, should work. One side of the hole was covered with tape and the epoxy was smeared into the hole, and after a week of curing and a little cleanup, it was ready for duty. The components were placed into freshly drilled holes, missing traces were replaced with wire, and it seems to be working fine.

This seems like a great tip to keep in mind for when catastrophe strikes your boards. There are more extreme ways to do it, of course, but perhaps none so flexible. After all, epoxy is versatile stuff.

A Brushless Motor On A PCB, Made From PCB

At Hackaday, we really appreciate it when new projects build on projects we’ve featured in the past. It’s great to be able to track back and see what inspires people to pick up someone else’s work and bring it to the next level or take it down a totally new path.

This PCB brushless motor is a great example of the soft collaboration that makes the Hackaday community so powerful. [bobricius] says he was inspired by this tiny PCB BLDC when he came up with his design. His write-up is still sparse at this point, but it looks like his motor is going to be used to drive a small robot. As with his inspiration, this motor has the stator coils etched right into the base PCB. But there are some significant improvements, like increasing the stator coil count from six to eight, as well as increasing the overall size of the motor. [bobricius] has also done away with the 3D-printed rotor of the original, opting to fabricate his rotor from stacked PCBs with cutouts for 5-mm neodymium magnets. We like the idea of using the same material throughout the motor, and it also raises the potential for stacking a second stator on the other side of the rotor, which might help mechanically and electrically. Even still, the prototype seems to hold its own in the video below.

This is [bobricius]’ second entry in the 2018 Hackaday Prize so far, after his not-a-Nixie tube display. Have you entered anything yet? Get to it! Prizes, achievements, and glory await.

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DIY Capacitive Rotational Encoder On The Cheap With FR4

Rotary encoders are critical to many applications, even at the hobbyist level. While considering his own rotary encoding needs for upcoming projects, it occurred to [Jan Mrázek] to try making his own DIY capacitive rotary encoder. If successful, such an encoder could be cheap and very fast; it could also in part be made directly on a PCB.

First prototype, two etched plates with transparent tape as dielectric material. Disc is 15 mm in diameter.

The encoder design [Jan] settled on was to make a simple adjustable plate capacitor using PCB elements with transparent tape as the dielectric material. This was used as the timing element for a 555 timer in astable mode. A 555 in this configuration therefore generates a square wave that changes in proportion to how much the plates in the simple capacitor overlap. Turn the plate, and the square wave’s period changes in response. Response time would be fast, and a 555 and some PCB space is certainly cheap materials-wise.

The first prototype gave positive results but had a lot of problems, including noise and possibly a sensitivity to temperature and humidity. The second attempt refined the design and had much better results, with an ESP32 reliably reading 140 discrete positions at a rate of 100 kHz. It seems that there is a tradeoff between resolution and speed; lowering the rate allows more positions to be reliably detected. There are still issues, but ultimately [Jan] feels that high-speed capacitive encoders requiring little more than some PCB real estate and some 555s are probably feasible.

This project is a reminder that FR4 (whether copper-clad, etched, or blank) shows up in clever applications: copper tape and blank FR4 can be used to quickly prototype RF filters, PocketNC built an entire small CNC tool around FR4, and our own [Voja] wrote a full guide on making beautiful enclosures from FR4.