Hackaday Superconference: Pushing The Boundaries Of PCB Artwork With Brian Benchoff

The artistic elite exists in a stratum above we hoi polloi, a world of achingly trendy galleries, well-heeled collectors, and art critics who act as gatekeepers to what is considered the pinnacle du jour of culture. Artistic movements that evolve outside this bubble may be derided or ignored as naive and unsophisticated, even in complete denial of their raw creative edge. When they are discovered by the establishment a few of their artists are selected and anointed, while inevitably the crucible in which they were formed is forgotten. On the streets of Bristol the incredible work of far more graffiti artists can be seen than just that of Banksy.

Our community has an art form all of its own, in the guise of PCB artwork and the #BadgeLife community. One day you will see electronic badges from darlings of the art world behind glass in those trendy galleries, but for now they live in glorious abundance in the wild. Here at Hackaday we are lucky enough to have in Brian Benchoff a colleague who is pushing the boundaries of PCB art, and at the Hackaday Superconference he took us through one of his more recent pieces of work.

Brian's pad printer.
Brian’s pad printer.

The colour palette of a typical printed circuit board is limited by the combination of fibreglass, copper, soldermask, plating, and silkscreen its designer selects. Thus while the variety of soldermask colours and plating materials can make for an eye-catching work, they have remained a colour-tinted near monochrome. The Holy Grail of the PCB artist has been to step into the world of full colour, and Brian has been pursuing that goal by exploring pad printing to produce extra colours beyond the sodermask..

It’s a subject he’s written about here in the past, and he introduces it in the talk with a look at existing badge artwork and a mention of an expensive commercial inkjet process before considering the type of printing you see daily on the sides of promotional pens. Those company titles are deposited on pens using pad printing, an offset process in which ink is first deposited upon a photo-etched metal plate before being picked up on a silicone rubber pad for transfer to the object to be printed. It’s not the panacea for all coloured-PCB tasks, but for adding relatively small blocks of pigment to an otherwise monochromatic board it can be very successful.

The eye-catching Kiss -themed Tindie badges.
The eye-catching Kiss -themed Tindie badges.

Brian’s examples are a panelised set of Tindie badges as a homage to the rock band Kiss, and his Tide pod addon containing a serial number in an EEPROM that was part of a Blockchain-inspired game. The Kiss Tindie badges use black soldermask with extensive white silkscreen and a modest area of red pad printing for the stage makeup, while the Tide addon makes clever use of the same swoosh printed in alternate colours at 180 degrees to each other.

In both cases there is some labour involved in creating the prints, and as his detailed write-up of printing the Tide pods reminds us, the process of creating the printing plate is not exactly an easy one. But it remains the best way yet to add extra colours to a board without paying a small fortune for the inkjet process, and if you’d like to put your own designs at the bleeding edge of PCB art you might wish to read his writeups and watch the video below the break.

This is just one example of the kind of manufacturing techniques, and electronic design principles on display at the Hackaday Superconference. There’s another Supercon just around the corner, so grab your ticket and send in your own talk proposal right away!

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PCB Take On Stars, Moons, And Ringed Planets Is Gold

Remember when PCBs were green and square? That’s the easy default, but most will agree that when you’re going to show off your boards instead of hiding them in a case, it’s worth extra effort to make them beautiful. We’re in a renaissance of circuit board design and the amount of effort being poured into great looking boards is incredible. The good news is that this project proves you don’t have to go nuts to achieve great results. This stars, moons, and planets badge looks superb using just two technical tricks: exposed (plated) copper and non-rectangular board outline.

Don’t take that the wrong way, there’s still a lot of creativity that [Steve] over at Big Mess o’ Wires used to make it look this great. The key element here is that copper and solder mask placements have extremely fine pitch. After placing the LEDs and resistors there’s a lot of blank space which was filled with what you might see in the night sky through your telescope.  What caught our eye about this badge is the fidelity of the ringed planet.

The white ink of silk screen is often spotty and jagged at the edges. But this copper with ENIG (gold) plating is crisp through the curves and with razor-sharp tolerance. It’s shown here taken under 10x magnification and still holds up. This is a trick to keep under your belt — if you have ground pours it’s easy to spice up the look of your boards just by adding negative-space art in the solder mask!

[Steve] mentions the board outline is technically not a circle but “a many-sided polygon” due to quirks of Eagle. You could have fooled us! We do like how he carried the circle’s edges through the bulk of the board using silk screen. If you’re looking for tips on board outline and using multiple layers of art in Eagle, [Brian Benchoff] published a fabulous How to do PCB art in Eagle article. Of course, he’s gone deeper than what the board houses offer by grabbing his own pad printing equipment and adding color to white solder mask.

The art was the jumping off point for featuring this badge, but [Steve] is known for his technical dives and this one is no different. He’s done a great job of recounting everything that popped up while designing the circuit, from LED color choice to coin cell internal resistance and PWM to low-power AVR tricks.

Successful Experiments In Multicolor Circuit Boards

Printed circuit boards have never been cheaper or easier to make. We’re not that far removed from a time where, if you wanted a printed circuit board, your best and cheapest option would be to download some proprietary software from a board house, use their terrible tool, and send your board off to be manufactured. A few copies of a 5x5cm board would cost $200. Now, anyone can use free (as in beer, if not speech) software, whip up a board, and get a beautifully printed circuit board for five dollars. It has never been easier to make a printed circuit board, and with that comes a new medium of artistic expression. Now, we can make art on PCBs.

PCB as Art

For the last year or so, Hackaday has been doing a deep-dive into the state of artistic PCBs. By far our biggest triumph is the Tindie Blinky Badge, an artistic representation of a robot dog with blinking LED eyes. [Andrew Sowa] turned some idiot into PCB coinage, and that same idiot experimented with multicolor silkscreen at last year’s DEF CON.

Others have far surpassed anything we could ever come up with ourselves; [Trammel Hudson] created an amazing blinky board using the standard OSHPark colors, and [Blake Ramsdell] is crafting full panels of PCB art. The work of Boldport and [Saar Drimer] has been featured in Marie Claire. The world of art on printed circuit boards has never been more alive, there has never been more potential, and the artistic output of the community is, simply, amazing. We are witnessing the evolution of a new artistic medium.

Printed circuit boards are a limited medium. Unless you want to shell out big bucks for more colors of silkscreen, weird colors of soldermask, or even multiple colors of soldermask, you will be limited to the standard stackup found in every board house. One color, the fiberglass substrate, will be a pale yellow. The copper layer will be silver or gold, depending on the finish. The soldermask will be green, red, yellow, blue, black, white, and of course purple if you go through OSH Park. The silkscreen will be white (or black if you go with a white soldermask). What I’m getting at is that the palette of colors available for PCB art is limited… or at least it has been.

For a few months now, Hackaday has been experimenting with a new process for adding colors to printed circuit boards. This is a manufacturing process that translates well into mass production. This is a process that could, theoretically, add dozens of colors to any small PCB. It’s just an experiment right now, but we’re happy to report some limited success. It’s now easy — and cheap — to add small amounts of color to any printed circuit board.

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Hackaday Links: September 3, 2017

The TI-83, TI-84, and TI-86 have been the standard graphing calculators in classrooms for two decades. This is the subject of an xkcd. Now, hopefully, there’s a contender for the throne. Numworks is a graphing calculator that looks like it was designed in at least 2006 (so very modern), and apparently, there’s a huge community behind it.

Juicero is shutting down. No one could have seen this one coming. The Juicero was a $700 press that turned proprietary, DRM’ed juice packs into juice and garbage. It was exquisitely engineered, but it turns out very few people want to spend thousands of dollars per year on DRM’ed juice. Oh, since the Juicero phones home, those $700 presses probably won’t work in the future.

Are you in the Bay area? Do you need test equipment? There’s a gigantic auction happening somewhere around San Jose. [Dave] tipped everyone off to this one, and this auction is pretty freakin’ spectacular. Spectrum analyzers, signal gens, a ‘mega zoom’ oscilloscope, and 4-channel, 500 MHz scopes for $50. There are a thousand lots in this auction. It’s nuts.

Everybody loves PCB art, and [Uri] has a guide for designing custom, functional electronic circuit boards. The toolchain used in this guide is Inkscape and KiCad, with blinky hearts, blinky pandas, and other blinky PCBs.

This one is a little out there even for us. Here’s how you build your own AA batteries. It’s a dozen #10 copper washers, a dozen or so #10 zinc washers, some cardboard, vinegar, salt, and some heat shrink tubing. The assembly of this battery is exactly what you would expect, and yes, it does work. Here’s the thing, though: The very crude tests suggest these batteries have a capacity of about 800-1000 mAh, which is far more than we would expect. Who has a programmable load and wants to do a few experiments? Also, these batteries are ‘rechargeable’ by taking them apart, sanding the crud off each washer, and adding new electrolyte.

[Jan] has made a name for himself stuffing synthesizers into tiny little microcontrollers. The latest project is the Infinity37, a polyphonic synth with MIDI, envelopes, and a whole bunch of cool stuff. Check out the video.

[rctestflight] is building a solar powered aircraft. It’s has a beautiful wing studded with solar panels. The latest flight was four hours, long enough to make piloting a plane through some FatSharks extremely tedious. Future developments will probably include a MPPT charging solution, and probably an autopilot.

How To Do PCB Art In Eagle

Last month I had the pleasure of creating a new piece of hardware for Tindie. [Jasmine], the queen bee of Tindie, and I designed, developed, and kitted three hundred Tindie badges in ten days leading up to DEF CON. The badges were a complete success, they introduced soldering to a lot of people, and were loved by all.

This badge was such a rousing success, it’s now official Tindie swag. We’ll be handing out a few of these blinky badges at upcoming events. But as of right now we’ve already handed out our entire stock, that means we need to build more. The second run meant ordering a thousand PCBs.

We could just do another run, and order a few more PCBs from the Gerbers I’ve already designed. I’m not really happy with the first version of this badge, though, and this is an opportunity to improve my design. This also gives me an opportunity to demonstrate my workflow for creating artistic boards in Eagle.

Effectively, what I’ll be demonstrating here is the creation of the Benchoff Nickel. A few months ago, [Andrew Sowa] took a portrait of yours truly, changed the colors to what is available on a normal OSHPark PCB, and turned that into different layers in KiCad. There are a few differences here. Firstly, I’ll be using a blue solder mask, although the same technique can be applied to green, red, yellow, white, or black soldermask. Secondly, this is Eagle, and I’m going to do the majority of the work with a BMP import. This is the fast and easy way to do things; if you want a KiCad tutorial, check out [Andrew]’s work, or my overly-involved multiple silkscreen process for KiCad. I don’t recommend this overly-involved process if you can help it. It took 20 hours to do the art for my previous project in KiCad, and I estimate it would have taken two in Eagle.

With that said, here’s the easy, cheap, and fast way of doing artistic boards in Eagle.

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Hackaday Links: August 13, 2017

We found the most boring man on the Internet! HTTP Status Code 418 — “I’m a teapot” — was introduced as an April Fools Joke in 1998. Everyone had a good laugh, and some frameworks even implemented it. Now, the most boring man on the Internet and chairman of the IETF HTTP working group is trying to get 418 removed from Node and Go. There is an argument to removing code 418 from pieces of software — it gums up the works, and given only 100 code points for a client error, with 30 of them already used, we don’t really have space for a joke. There’s a solution, though: someone has submitted a request to register 418 as ‘I’m a teapot’.

The Travelling Hacker box is a migratory box of random electronic junk. The box has traveled across the United States several times, and earlier this year it started across Canada — from Vancouver to St. Johns — to begin an International journey. The box is now missing, and I’m out. I’m turning this one over to the community. There are now several rogue boxes traveling the world, the first of which was sent from [Sophi] to [jlbrian7] and is now in Latvia with [Arsenijs]. The idea of the Travelling Hacker Box is now up to you — organize your own, and share random electronic crap.

Bluetooth 5 is here, or at least the spec is. It has longer range, more bandwidth, and advertising extensions.

Guess what’s on the review desk? The Monoprice Mini Delta! If you have any questions you’d like answered about this tiny, very inexpensive printer, put them in the comments. I only have some first impressions, but so far, it looks like extending the rails (to make a taller printer) is more difficult than it’s worth. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but with the effort required, I could just print another printer.

Interested in PCB art? [Drew] found someone doing halftone art with PCBs. This is a step up from nickels.

Indiana University is getting rid of some very, very cool stuff in a government auction. This device is listed as a ‘gantry’, but that’s certainly not what it is. There have been suggestions that these devices are a flight sim, but that doesn’t sit quite right either. It’s several thousand pounds of metal, with the minimum bid of $2.00 at the time of this writing. Any guesses on what this actually is?

ESP8266 Dev Board Sports Flying Squirrel PCB Art

[Jarrett] has a box of Nokia phone batteries and decided to use them in a project. He designed and built WiFi throwies— these consist of ESP8266 WiFi chips attached to custom PCBs and powered by Nokia phone batteries. The board charges LiPoly/Li-Ion batteries over USB with the help of a MCP73831 charger chip and has USB-serial on-board. It’s much more of a powered ESP8266 dev board than a throwie, but we’ll give [Jarrett] the benefit of the doubt.

The PCB ended up larger than [Jarrett] would have liked, because of the size requirements of the phone battery connected to it. However, this gave him the canvas to create some fun PCB art. After designing the board he imported the Gerbers into Adobe Photoshop and converted each layer into a monocolor image based on the material of that layer—purple for OSHPark’s stencil mask, beige for DirtyPCB’s FR4, and so on. One challenge [Jarrett] encountered was how to get the art back into Altium Circuit Maker, his layout program of choice. After playing around with different methods for a few days, he wrote a tutorial sharing what he found out.

HaD has covered WiFi throwies before. We also appreciate a beautiful circuit board. Check out our posts on turning PCBs into art and making lapel pins out of circuit board fiberglass.