[TinkersProjects] experimented with making their own flexible PCB for LED modules inside a special fixture, and the end result was at least serviceable despite some problems. It does seem as though the issues can be at least partially blamed on some knockoff Kapton tape, which is what [TinkersProjects] used as a backing material.
The approach was simple: after buying some copper foil and wide Kapton tape, simply stick the foil onto the tape and use the toner transfer method to get a PCB pattern onto the copper. From there, the copper gets etched away in a chemical bath and the process is pretty much like any other DIY PCB. However, this is also where things started to go wonky.
Etching was going well, until [TinkersProjects] noticed that the copper was lifting away from the Kapton tape. Aborting the etching process left a messy board, but it was salvageable. But another problem was discovered during soldering, as the Kapton tape layer deformed from the heat, as if it were a piece of heat shrink. This really shouldn’t happen, and [TinkersProjects] began to suspect that the “Kapton” tape was a knockoff. Switching to known-good tape was an improvement, but the adhesive left a bit to be desired because traces could lift easily. Still, in the end the DIY flexible PCB worked, though the process had mixed results at best.
Flexible PCBs have been the backbone of nifty projects like this self-actuating PoV display, so it’s no surprise that a variety of DIY PCB methods are getting applied to it.
This is one of those ideas that seems so obvious that you don’t know why it hasn’t been tried before. The basic idea is to leverage the geometry of layered materials that slip past each other when bent. Think of the way the pages of a hardbound book feather out when you open it, and you’ll get the idea. In the case of the ShArc (“Shift Arc”) sensor, the front and back covers of the book are flexible PCBs with a series of overlapping pads. Between these PCBs are a number of plain polyimide spacer strips. All the strips of the sensor are anchored at one end, and everything is held together with an elastic sleeve. As the ShArc is bent, the positions of the electrodes on the top and bottom layers shift relative to each other, changing the capacitance across them. From the capacitance measurements and the known position of each pad, a microcontroller can easily calculate the bend radius at each point and infer the curvature of the whole strip.
The video below shows how the ShArc works, as well as several applications for the technology. The obvious use as a flex sensor for the human hand is most impressive — it could vastly simplify [Will Cogley]’s biomimetic hand controller — but such sensors could be put to work in any system that bends. And as a bonus, it looks pretty simple to build one at home.
We all have a gaming system in our pocket or purse and some of us are probably reading on it right now. That pocket space is valuable so we have to budget what we keep in there and adding another gaming system is not in the cards, if it takes up too much space. [Kevin Bates] budgeted the smallest bit of pocket real estate for his full-size Arduboy clone, Arduflexboy. It is thin and conforms to his pocket because the custom PCB uses a flexible substrate and he has done away with the traditional tactile buttons.
Won’t a flexible system be hard to play? Yes. [Kevin] said it himself, and while we don’t disagree, a functional Arduboy on a flexible circuit makes up for practicality by being a neat manufacturing demonstration. This falls under the because-I-can category but the thought that went into it is also evident. All the components mount opposite the screen so it looks clean from the front and the components will not be subject to as much flexing and the inputs are in the same place as a traditional Arduboy.
cost = low, practicality = extremely low, customer service problems = high
These flexible circuit boards use a polyimide substrate, the same stuff as Kapton tape, and ordering boards is getting cheaper so we can expect to see more of them popping up. Did we mention that we currently have a contest for flexible circuits? We have prizes that will make you sing, just for publishing your flex PCB concept.
The 2019 Hackaday Prize, which was announced last week, is very much on everyone’s mind, so much so that we’ve already gotten a great response with a lot of really promising early entries. As much as we love that, the Prize isn’t the only show in town, and we’d be remiss to not call attention to our other ongoing contest: The Flexible PCB Contest.
The idea of the Flexible PCB Contest is simple: design something that needs a flexible PCB. That’s it. Whether it’s a wearable, a sensor, or a mechanism that needs to transmit power and control between two or more moving elements, if a flexible PCB solves a problem, we want to know about it.
We’ve teamed up with Digi-Key for this contest, and 60 winners will receive free fabrication of three copies of their flexible PCB design, manufactured through the expertise of OSH Park. And here’s the beauty part: all you need is an idea! No prototype is necessary. Just come up with an idea and let us know about it. Maybe you have a full schematic, or just a simple Fritzing project. Heck, even a block diagram will do. Whatever your idea is for a flexible PCB project, we want to see it.
To get the creative juices going, here’s a look at a few of the current entries
The now-humble PCB was revolutionary when it came along, and the whole ecosystem that evolved around it has been a game changer in electronic design. But the PCB is just so… flat. Planar. Two-dimensional. As useful as it is, it gets a little dull sometimes.
Here’s your chance to break out of Flatland and explore the third dimension of circuit design with our brand new Flexible PCB Contest.
We’ve teamed up with Digi-Key for this contest. Digi-Key’s generous sponsorship means 60 contest winners will receive free fabrication of three copies of their flexible PCB design, manufactured through the expertise of OSH Park. So now you can get your flex on with wearables, sensors, or whatever else you can think of that needs a flexible PCB.
Pivots for e-textiles can seem like a trivial problem. After all, wires and fabrics bend and flex just fine. However, things that are worn on a body can have trickier needs. Snap connectors are the usual way to get both an electrical connection and a pivot point, but they provide only a single conductor. When [KOBAKANT] had a need for a pivoting connection with three electrical conductors, they came up with a design that did exactly that by using a flexible circuit board integrated to a single button snap.
This interesting design is part of a solution to a specific requirement, which is to accurately measure hand movements. The photo shows two strips connected together, which pivot as one. The metal disk near the center is a magnet, and underneath it is a Hall effect sensor. When the wrist bends, the magnet is moved nearer or further from the sensor and the unit flexes and pivots smoothly in response. The brief videos embedded below make it clear how the whole thing works.
A lithium-ion battery tester seems like a simple project, at least electrically. But when you start thinking about the physical problem of dealing with a huge range of battery sizes, things get a little more complicated. Sure, you can 3D-print adapters and jigs to accommodate the different batteries, or you can cheat a bit and put the charger and tester circuit on a flexible PCB.
Maybe it’s the Kapton talking, but we really like the look of [Androkavo]’s project. The idea is simple – rather than use a rigid FR4 printed circuit board, a flexible polyimide film PCB a little longer than the biggest battery to be tested was fabricated. With large contacts on each end, the board can just be looped across the battery to take a reading. For charging, neodymium magnets on the other side of the board keep the charger in contact with the battery. The circuit itself is built around an STM8S003 8-bit microcontroller and a handful of discrete components. There’s a bar graph display for battery voltage that covers 2.0 to 4.9 volts, and a USB port for charging. The charger works with everything from the big 21700 cells down to the short 14500s. With the help of another magnet to keep the board from bending too sharply, even the diminutive 10180 can be charged. Check out the video below, which has some of the most relaxing music and best microscope shots of SMD soldering we’ve seen.
Flexible PCBs are versatile things. Not only can they make projects like this successful, but they can also wriggle around, swim, or even play music.