Panelization of printed circuit boards is a very helpful trick for any PCB design tool to have. By panelizing boards, you can get them ready for automated assembly. You can put testing rigs right on the panel. You can combine different boards to reduce your PCB production cost. But Eagle, Fritzing, and KiCad don’t have proper panelization tools, only hacks and third-party tools to get something close to proper panelization. [Flemming] just created a new utility for KiCad that makes multiple copies of a board connected via mouse bites. It’s not complete panelization functionality, but for a lot of us, it’ll be good enough.
The video demo for this utility (try not to click on that because we’re going to blow some bandwidth with this link) starts off by importing a board into Pcbnew, making several copies of the board, arranging these boards to have 3-4mm spacing, and drawing ‘hint lines’ for the script, telling it where the mouse bites should go. The script runs, and boom, mouse bites and a panel.
While this tool will give you a set of Gerbers with multiple copies of a board connected with mouse bites, this is not in any way a complete solution to panelizing PCBs. If you’re panelizing PCBs, you’ll want to add fiducials in the corners of the full panel, which this tool does not allow you to do. You might want to have one complete ‘frame’ as a panel — effectively a rectangular piece of fiberglass that holds all your PCBs — which this tool does not allow you to do. Since you don’t get a frame, it’s impossible to run programming or testing signals to the frame that would be needed for assembly, but not necessary in production. That said, unless you’re going to spend thousand on Altium or use Open tools that have critical flaws such as GerberPanelizer, this is the best option you’ve got.
Anyone who’s made a PCB has encountered the conundrum of having to pay for space that you don’t use… for instance, designing a round PCB and seeing the corners go to waste. The solution? Smaller boards added to the blank spots.
One logical stumbling block might be that you simply don’t have a small PCB design ready to go. Latvian hacker [Arsenijs] created a resource of small PCBs that can be dropped into those blank spots, as well as a tutorial on how to combine the gerbers into a single panel.
Great minds think alike, and this guide is following hot on the heels of [Brian Benchoff’s] article on panelization. They’re both a great read. It’s interesting to think that not long ago we would see multiple guides on home etching boards and now we’ve climbed the production ladder to guides that help better utilize PCB fab houses. Neat!
This project seems a logical spinoff of [Arsenijs]’s ZeroPhone Pi smartphone project, a finalist for the 2017 Hackaday Prize that makes a low-cost phone using a stack of PCBs. One imagines that while prototyping the phone [Arsenijs] ended up with a lot of wasted space! Fill that up with smaller designs like breakouts, or decorative items like a hackerspace business card. If you’re looking for small PCBs you can find a few in the files area of the project on Hackaday.io. Otherwise, you can share yours and [Arsenijs] will add them.
For reasons that will remain undisclosed until some time in the future, I recently had a need to panelize a few PCBs. Panelization is the art of taking PCB designs you already have, whether they’re KiCad board files, Eagle board files, or just Gerbers, and turning them into a single collection of PCBs that can be sent off to a fab house.
If you’re still wondering what this means, take a look at the last board you got from OSH Park, Seeed, Itead, or Dirty PCBs. Around the perimeter of your board, you’ll find some rough spots. These are ‘mouse bites’ and tabs, places where the boards are strung together to form a gigantic rectangular panel sent off to a manufacturer. You can check out this great interview with [Laen] from OSH Park to get an idea of how this works, but the basic process is to take a bunch of Gerbers, add tabs and mouse bites, solve the knapsack problem, and send the completed panel off to a board house.
Panelizing boards is something most of us won’t have to do often. Really, you only want a panel of boards when you’re manufacturing something. For small-scale production and prototypes, bare boards will do just fine. Simply by virtue of the fact that panelizing boards is far less common than throwing some Gerbers at OSH Park or Seeed, there aren’t many (good) tutorials, and even fewer (good) tools to do so. This is how you panelize boards quickly and easily using Open Source tools.
Just about anyone can make a simple LED cube. But what if you want to make a 1-meter cube using 512 LEDs? [Hari] wanted to do it, so he created two different kinds of LED boards using EasyEDA. There are 270 of each type of board, for a total of 540 (there are only 512 LEDs, so we guess he got some spares due to how the small boards panelized). The goal is to combine these boards to form a cube measuring over three feet on each side.
To simplify wiring, the boards are made to daisy chain like a cordwood module. However, to get things to line up, each column of LED boards have to rotate 90 degrees. You can see several videos about the project below.
A lot of the board houses out there including Seeed and ITead studios have a fixed size for circuit boards before the price goes up. A one-inch square board costs the same as a much larger 5cm x 5cm board, making panelized PCBs a great way to get more boards for the same amount of money. Trying to panelize a board in Eagle with copy and paste is a chore without the right tools, though, so we’re happy to see a great panelization tutorial from [Victor].
To panelize one of his boards for a PCB order, [Victor] used one of Eagle’s User Language Programs to duplicate the part names on the additional boards. After that, it was a simple matter of running a CAM job to generate the necessary Gerber files.
Of course once the boards arrive, you’ll have to cut them apart from each other. This can be done with everything from a Dremel to a hack saw to a metal shear, but we’re wondering what other Hackaday readers are using to cut up PCBs. Leave a note in the comments with your preferred method of depanelization.