Hacker Tactic: Single-PCB Panels

Ordering a PCB? Two of them? Three? Five? For about eight years now, I’ve been regularly ordering large numbers of different PCBs, and, naturally, have developed a toolkit to make things smoother. One trick is PCB panelization, and you should really know about it.

You might’ve encountered PCB panels already. Perhaps, if you order PCBA at a fab, you will get your board returned in a whole new form-factor, with rails on the sides that you have to snap off before your PCB is usable. Those rails are used so that your PCBs are easier to handle during assembly, but that’s far from the only reason why you would make a panel.

If you need multiple pieces of a PCB, your fab may say that building 50 pcs is classified as “large batch” and that takes longer than 30 days, which delays your entire PCB order. I’ve been there, five years ago, running out of time right before Chinese New Year. The fix was simple – I made a 2×2 panel and ordered that in quantity of 10-15. Panelization might be a little more expensive, or maybe even cheaper, but, most importantly, it will be faster.

In a few hours’ time, I sat down, figured out that KiCad has built-in features for panelization, and ordered panels instead of separate PCBs. Thanks to that, I made the Chinese New Year deadline that year and could successfully restock my store, letting me earn a fair bit of money instead of keeping a popular product out-of-stock – ultimately, helping my family stay up on rent that month.

Panelization lets you hack around many PCB ordering and assembly limitations, and I’ve only gotten started – there’s way way more! For now, let’s sort out panelizing multiples of the same PCB. As long as your boards are using KiCad (or KiCad-converted from Eagle/EasyEDA/Altium/gerbers), there’s no better software than KiKit.

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Ultra Cheap PCB Wrenches Make Perfect Kit Accessory

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear. We do not, under any circumstances, recommend you replace your existing collection of wrenches with ones made out of PCBs. However, as creator [Ben Nyx] explains, they do make for an extremely cheap and lightweight temporary tool that would be perfect for distributing with DIY kits.

This clever open hardware project was spawned by [Ben]’s desire to pack an M3 wrench in with the kits for an ESP32-based kiln controller he’s developing. He was able to find dirt cheap screwdrivers from the usual import sites, but nobody seemed to stock a similarly affordable wrench. He experimented with 3D printing them, but in the end, found the plastic just wasn’t up to the task. Then he wondered how well a tiny wrench cut from a PCB would fare.

The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is pretty well. We wouldn’t advise you try to crank your lug nuts down with one, but for snugging up a couple nuts that hold down a control board, they work a treat. [Ben] came up with a panelized design in KiCad that allows 18 of the little wrenches to get packed into a 100 x 100 mm PCB suitable for production from popular online board houses. Manufactured from standard 1.6 mm FR4, they come out to approximately 10 cents a pop.

Since [Ben] has been kind enough to release his design under the MIT license, you’re free to spin up some of these wrenches either for your own kits or just to toss in the tool bag for emergencies. We’d love to see somebody adapt the design for additional sizes of nuts, or maybe figure out some way to nest them to sneak out a couple extra wrenches per board.

We’ve seen plenty of folks make cheap tools for themselves in the past, but projects that can produce cheap tools in mass quantities is uniquely exciting for a community like ours.

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Hand Depanelizer Gets Pneumatic Upgrade

In high volume production, smaller PCBs are often “panelized” so that multiple copies can be shuffled through assembly as a single piece. Each board is attached to the panel with a few strategically placed tabs, not unlike the sprues in a plastic model kit. If you only have to separate a few boards you can simply cut them with a hand nipper, but when you’re doing hundreds or thousands of boards, it quickly becomes impractical.

Which is where [Clough42] found himself recently. Looking to improve the situation without breaking the bank, he decided to automate his trusty hand-held depanelizer tool. The basic idea was to build an actuator that could stand in for his own hand when operating the tool. He already had a pneumatic cylinder that he could power the device with, he just needed to design it.

In the video below, he walks the viewer though his CAD design process for this project. His first step, which is one that’s often overlooked by new players, is creating digital representations of the hardware he’s using. This allows him to quickly design 3D printed parts that have the proper dimensions and clearances to interface with his real-world components. Remember: it’s a lot easier to adapt your 3D model to the components on hand than the other way around.

With the appropriate valves, hoses, and a foot pedal attached to the pneumatic cylinder, he’s able to operate the cutter completely hands-free. He still has to manually move the panel around, but at least it saves him from the repetitive squeezing motion.

With a tool like this and a custom testing jig, you’ll be producing PCBs like the pros in no time.

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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.

Panelizing Boards In KiCad

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.

This is a KiCad specific tool, and we’ve seen other tools for KiCad that make multiple copies of a board. We’ve also seen tools that take raw Gerbers of multiple designs and turn them into a panel. [Flemming]’s efforts are the closest we’ve seen to having all the features you want out of a panelization utility bild exclusively for KiCad.

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.

Use All That Extra Space With PCB Panelization

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.

Panelizing Boards The Easy Way

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.

Now this is panel racing

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.

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