Tidy Laser Cut Packaging For PCBs With KiCAD

A laser cutter is a useful tool to have in any workshop. While many hackers use them for their cutting abilities, it’s important to remember that they can be great as engravers, too. [Wrickert] was well aware of this when he set his to work, producing attractive packaging for his Tindie orders.

[Wrickert] sells a variety of small PCB-based devices on Tindie, and it’s nice to have something to package them up with, rather than just sending a bare board. To do this quickly and effectively, KiCAD is used to help generate the packaging from the original PCB geometry itself. The board outlines are exported as an SVG file, reopened in KiCAD, and then used to create the required cardboard parts. The laser can then also be used to engrave the cardboard too.

It’s a tidy packaging solution that requires no messy inks or printers, and can be designed in the same software as the device itself. We’ve covered this area before, talking about what it takes to go from a home project to a saleable kit. If you’re in the game, you might find [Wrickert]’s hack to be just the ticket!

KiCad Panelization Made Easy

There’s a new Python-based script that will panelize your KiCad circuit boards from the command line. The project by [Jan Mrázek] is called KiKit and works on .kicad_pcb files to arrange them in a grid with your choice of mousebites or v-cuts for separating the boards after production.

When working with smaller boards it’s common practice to group them together into panels. This is done to speed up PCB assembly as multiple boards can have solder paste applied, go through a pick and place machine, and be sent into the reflow oven as a single unit. Often this is done manually, but in many cases this script will save you the time while delivering the results you need.

Let’s say you really wanted to make a whole bunch of those Xling open source Tamagotchi-like key fobs we saw a couple of weeks back. Using KiKit you can gang up six of the boards at a time, using “mousebites” to keep them together during production but make it easy to separate them after all the components are soldered:

/usr/local/bin/kikit panelize grid --space 3 --gridsize 2 3 --tabwidth 3 --tabheight 3 --htabs 2 --vtabs 1 --mousebites 0.5 1 0.25 --radius 1 Xling/hardware/xling.kicad_pcb xling_panel.kicad_pcb

You can see that the parameters let you set space between the boards, number of boards in the grid, width of the tabs, tab dimensions, number of tabs between boards, and even the radius of the curve where the tabs meet the board. These settings were pulled from the examples page, which demonstrates outcomes for many different settings options.

If you want to give this a try, we suggest installing directly from the repository, as improvements are ongoing and the pip3 version didn’t have all of the options shown in the examples. For us this was as easy as sudo python3 setup.py install and then calling the script with the full path /usr/local/bin/kikit.

Results from this board are both impressive and cautionary. You can see the top edge of the design is recessed yet the most up-to-date version of KiKit was still able to make the connection. However, how this affects the USB connector on the bottom of the board design may be something to consider before pulling the trigger on your panel order.

Altium Has Its 2kicad Moment

Around these parts we tend to be exponents of the KiCad lifestyle; what better way to design a PCBA than with free and open source tools that run anywhere? But there are still capabilities in commercial EDA packages that haven’t found their way into KiCad yet, so it may not always be the best tool for the job. Altium Designer is a popular non-libre option, but at up to tens of thousands of USD per seat it’s not always a good fit for users and businesses without a serious need.

It’s hard to find an exciting photo of a dialog box

What do you do as a KiCad user who encounters a design in Altium you’d like to work with? Well as of April 3rd 2020, [Thomas Pointhuber] has merged the beginnings of a native Altium importer into KiCad which looks to be slated for the 6.0 release. As [Thomas] himself points out in the patch submission, this is hardly the first time a 3rd party Altium importer has been published. His new work is a translation of the Perl plugin altium2kicad by [thesourcerer8]. And back in January another user left a comment with links to four other (non-KiCad) tools to handle Altium files.

If you’d like to try out this nifty new feature for yourself, CNX has a great walkthrough starting at building KiCad from source. As for documents to test against the classic BeagleBone Black sources seen above can be found at on GitHub. Head past the break to check out the very boring, but very exciting video of the importer at work, courtesy of [Thomas] himself. We can’t wait to give this a shot!

Thanks for the tip [Chris Gammell]!

Continue reading “Altium Has Its 2kicad Moment”

Can Solder Paste Stencils Be 3D Printed? They Can!

3D printed solder paste stencil, closeup.

[Jan Mrázek]’s  success with 3D printing a solder paste stencil is awfully interesting, though he makes it clear that it is only a proof of concept. There are a lot of parts to this hack, so let’s step through them one at a time.

First of all, it turns out that converting a PCB solder paste layer into a 3D model is a bit of a challenge. A tool [Jan] found online didn’t work out, so he turned to OpenSCAD and wrote a script (available on GitHub) which takes two DXF files as input: one for the board outline, and one for the hole pattern. If you’re using KiCad, he has a Python script (also on GitHub) which will export the necessary data.

The result is a 3D model that is like a solder paste mask combined with a raised border to match the board outline, so that the whole thing self-aligns by fitting on top of the PCB. A handy feature, for sure. [Jan] says the model pictured here printed in less than 10 minutes. Workflow-wise, that certainly compares favorably to waiting for a stencil to arrive in the mail. But how do the actual solder-pasting results compare?

3D printed solder stencil on PCB, after applying solder paste.

[Jan] says that the printed stencil had a few defects but it otherwise worked fine for 0.5 mm pitch ICs and 0402 resistors, and the fact that the 3D printed stencil self-registered onto the board was a welcome feature. That being said, it took a lot of work to get such results. [Jan]’s SLA printer is an Elegoo Mars, and he wasn’t able to have it create holes for 0.2 mm x 0.5 mm pads without first modifying his printer for better X/Y accuracy.

In the end, he admits that while a functional DIY solder stencil can be 3D printed in about 10 minutes, it’s not as though professionally-made stencils that give better results are particularly expensive or hard to get. Still, it’s a neat trick that could come in handy. Also, a quick reminder that we stepped through how to make a part in OpenSCAD in the past, which should help folks new to OpenSCAD make sense of [Jan]’s script.

DeepPCB Routes Your KiCAD PCBs

Computers can write poetry, even if they can’t necessarily write good poetry. The same can be said of routing PC boards. Computers can do it, but can they do it well? Of course, there are multiple tools each with pluses and minuses. However, a slick web page recently announced deeppcb.ai — a cloud-based AI router — and although details are sparse, there are a few interesting things about the product.

First, it supports KiCAD. You provide a DSN file, and within 24 hours you get a routed SES file. Maybe. You get three or four free boards –apparently each week — after which there is some undisclosed fee. Should you just want to try it out, create an account (which is quick and free — just verify your e-mail and create a password). Then in the “Your Boards” section there are a few examples already worked out.

Continue reading “DeepPCB Routes Your KiCAD PCBs”

KiCad Action Plugins

The last two years has been a particularly exciting time for KiCad, for users, casual contributors, and for the core developers too. Even so, there are many cool new features that are still in process. One bottleneck with open-source development of complex tools like KiCad is the limited amount of time that developers can devote for the project. Action plugins stand to both reduce developer load and increase the pace of development by making it easier to add your own functionality to the already extensible tool.

Sometime around version 4.0.7 (correct us if we’re wrong), it was decided to introduce “action plugins” for KiCad, with the intention that the larger community of contributors can add features that were not on the immediate road map or the core developers were not working on. The plugin system is a framework for extending the capabilities of KiCad using shared libraries. If you’re interested in creating action plugins, check out documentation at KiCad Plugin System and Python Plugin Development for Pcbnew. Then head over to this forum post for a roundup of Tutorials on python scripting in pcbnew, and figure out how to Register a python plugin inside pcbnew Tools menu. Continue reading “KiCad Action Plugins”

A New KiCAD Tutorial Hits The Scene

KiCAD has a rightfully earned image problem regarding beginners. The shiny new version 5 has improved things (and we’re very excited for v6!) but the tool is a bit obtuse even when coming from a electronics design background, so we’re always excited to see new learning material. [Mike Watts] is the latest to join the esteemed group of people willing to export their knowledge with his KiCAD tutorial series on GitHub that takes the aspiring user from schematic through fab and assembly.

The tutorial is focused around the process of creating a development board for the dimuitive Microchip née Atmel ATSAMD10 Cortex M0 ARM CPU. It opens by asking the reader to create a schematic and proceeds to teach by directing them to perform certain actions then explaining what’s going on and which shortcuts can accelerate things. This method continues through layout, manufacturing, and assembly.

Of note is that when defining the board outline [Mike] describes how to use OpenSCAD to parametrically define it; a neat micro-tutorial on using the two great tools to compliment each other. We also love that upon successful completion of the tutorial series the user will have developed a tiny but useful development board that can be assembled for about $3 in single quantities!

As with all open source work, if you have quibbles or want to contribute open a pull request and give [Mike] a hand!