PCB Thermal Design Hack Gets Hot And Heavy

Thanks to the relatively recent rise of affordable board production services, many of the people reading Hackaday are just now learning the ropes of PCB design. For those still producing the FR4 equivalent of “Hello World”, it’s accomplishment enough that all the traces go where they’re supposed to. But eventually your designs will become more ambitious, and with this added complexity will naturally come new design considerations. For example, how do you keep a PCB from cooking itself in high current applications?

It’s this exact question that Mike Jouppi hoped to help answer when he hosted last week’s Hack Chat. It’s a topic he takes very seriously, enough that he actually started a company called Thermal Management LLC dedicated to helping engineers cope with PCB thermal design issues. He also chaired the development of IPC-2152, a standard for properly sizing board traces based on how much current they’ll need to carry. It isn’t the first standard that’s touched on the issue, but it’s certainly the most modern and comprehensive.

It’s common for many designers, who can be referencing data that in some cases dates back to the 1950s, to simply oversize their traces out of caution. Often this is based on concepts that Mike says his research has found to be inaccurate, such as the assumption that the inner traces of a PCB tend to run hotter than those on the outside. The new standard is designed to help designers avoid these potential pitfalls, though he notes that it’s still an imperfect analog for the real-world; additional data such as mounting configuration needs to be taken into consideration to get a better idea of a board’s thermal properties.

Even with such a complex topic, there’s some tips that are widely applicable enough to keep in mind. Mike says the thermal properties of the substrate are always going to be poor compared to copper, so using internal copper planes can help conduct heat through the board. When dealing with SMD parts that produce a lot of heat, large copper plated vias can be used to create a parallel thermal path.

Towards the end of the Chat, Thomas Shaddack chimes in with an interesting idea: since the resistance of a trace will increase as it gets hotter, could this be used to determine the temperature of internal PCB traces that would otherwise be difficult to measure? Mike says the concept is sound, though if you wanted to get an accurate read, you’d need to know the nominal resistance of the trace to calibrate against. Certainly something to keep in mind for the future, especially if you don’t have a thermal camera that would let you peer into a PCB’s inner layers.

A rig used to test thermal properties of different trace configurations.

While the Hack Chats are often rather informal, we noticed some fairly pointed questions this time around. Clearly there were folks out there with very specific issues that needed some assistance. It can be difficult to address all the nuances of a complex problem in a public chat, so in a few cases we know Mike directly reached out to attendees so he could talk them through the issues one-on-one.

While we can’t always promise you’ll get that kind of personalized service, we think it’s a testament to the unique networking opportunities available to those who take part in the Hack Chat, and thank Mike for going that extra mile to make sure everyone’s questions were answered to the best of his ability.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

Remoticon 2021 // Debra Ansell Connects PCB In Ways You Didn’t Expect

“LEDs improve everything.” Words to live by. Most everything that Debra Ansell of [GeekMomProjects] makes is bright, bold, and blinky. But if you’re looking for a simple string of WS2812s, you’re barking up the wrong tree. In the last few years, Debra has been making larger and more complicated assemblies, and that has meant diving into the mechanical design of modular PCBs. In the process Debra has come up with some great techniques that you’ll be able to use in your own builds, which she shared with us in a presentation during the 2021 Hackaday Remoticon.

She starts off with a quick overview of the state of play in PCB art, specifically of the style that she’s into these days: three dimensional constructions where the physical PCB itself is a sculptural element of the project. She’s crossing that with the popular triangle-style wall hanging sculpture, and her own fascination with “inner glow” — side-illuminated acrylic diffusers. Then she starts taking us down the path of creating her own wall art in detail, and this is where you need to listen up. Continue reading “Remoticon 2021 // Debra Ansell Connects PCB In Ways You Didn’t Expect”

The Benefits Of Critiquing Your Own PCB Designs

In a recent retrospective video, [Phil] from Phil’s Lab goes through a number of his early PCB designs, to critique and comment on what he likes and doesn’t like in these designs. Even though it’s only been a few a few years, he founds plenty that’s wrong. From poor and inconsistent formatting in the schematic, to sloppy and outright broken PCB layouts. It’s a fascinating look at years of lessons learned.

[Phil] comments on the importance of clear labeling and organization of sections and pages in the schematic to make it obvious what the function of a block is. Other lessons include the labeling of nets to make PCB routing a lot easier, making good use of PCB planes, getting all relevant information on components and layout in the schematic as a comment, and connecting decoupling capacitors to their relevant pins.

Although we tend to forget about older projects, it can be very interesting to take a look at them now and then, to see (hopefully) our progress over the years. In the case of [Phil] it’s fascinating to see the transition from a basic two-sided board with THT components to multi-layer boards with STM32 MCUs.

Continue reading “The Benefits Of Critiquing Your Own PCB Designs”

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Hackaday Links: October 17, 2021

We found a couple of headlines this week that seemed pretty alarming at first, mentioning as they did both “Chinese grannies” and “stun guns.” Digging a little deeper, it appears that widespread elder abuse isn’t what this is about, although there certainly is an unsavory aspect to the story. Apparently, it’s pretty common in Chinese cities for large groups of people to get together for exercise, with “square dancing” being one popular form. This isn’t the “do-si-do and allemande right” square dancing that made high school gym class really awkward for a few days, but rather large groups of mostly older women busting moves to Chinese music in public spaces. It’s the music that’s bothering some people, enough so that they’re buying “stun guns” that can somehow turn off the dancing grannies’ music. None of the articles go into any detail on the device besides describing it as a flashlight-looking thing, and that it appears to do no permanent damage to the sound system. We’d love to know where to get one of these things — you know, for science. And really, it’s kind of sad that people are taking offense at senior citizens just looking for a bit of exercise and social contact.

A couple of weeks back, we mentioned TeachMePCB, a free online PCB design class designed to take you from zero to PCB designer. We’ve been working through the course material and enjoying it, but it strikes us that there’s a lot to keep track when you’re designing a PCB, especially if you’re new to the game. That’s where this very detailed PCB design checklist would come in handy. It takes you right from schematic review and breadboard testing of subassemblies right through to routing traces to avoid crosstalk and stray capacitance problems, and right on to panelization tips and even how to make sure assembly services get your build right. Reading through the list, you get the feeling that each item is something that tripped up the author (grosdode) at one time or another. So it’s a little like having someone with hard-won experience watching over your shoulder as you work, and that can’t really be a bad thing.

Our friend Jeroen Vleggaar over at Huygens Optics on YouTube posted a video the other day about building an entire Schmidt-Cassegrain reflecting telescope out of a single piece of glass. The video is mostly an interview with optical engineer Rik ter Horst, who took up the building of monolithic telescopes as a hobby. It turns out that one of his scopes will be flying to space aboard a cubesat in January. If you’re a fan of precision optics, you’ll want to check this out. Jeroen also teased that he’ll be building his own version of Rik’s monolithic telescope, so watch for an article on that soon.

Heads up — applications are now being accepted for the Open Hardware Summit’s Ada Lovelace Fellowships. This year there are up to ten fellowships offered, each of which includes a $500 travel stipend to attend the Open Hardware Summit in April. The fellowships seek to foster a more diverse community in open-source hardware; applications are being accepted until December 17th, so hurry.

And finally, if you’ve got some spare cycles, you might want to turn your Mark 1 eyeballs to the task of spotting walrus from space. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) is crowdsourcing its walrus census efforts by training people to spot the well-armed marine mammals in satellite photos. Assessing population numbers and distribution is important to understanding their ecology, and walrus are cute and cuddly (no, they’re not), so getting people to count them makes sense. But this seems like a job for machine vision — there has to be a model trained to recognize walrus, right? Or maybe just something to count dark spots against a white background? Maybe someone can whip something up to make this job a bit easier and less subjective.

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Hackaday Links: October 3, 2021

It’s one thing to speculate about what’s happening with the Mars helicopter Ingenuity, but it’s another to get an insider’s view on recent flight problems. As we previously reported, Ingenuity is starting to face a significant challenge, as a seasonal atmospheric pressure drop on Mars threatens to make the already rarefied air too thin to generate useful lift. Mission controllers tested the chopper at higher rotor speeds, and while that worked, later attempts to fly using that higher speed resulted in an abort. The article, written by one of the NASA/JPL engineers, is a deep dive into the problem, which occurred when Ingenuity sensed excessive wiggle in two of the servos controlling the rotor swashplate. The thought is that accumulated wear in the servos and linkages might be causing the problem; after all, Ingenuity has made thirteen flights so far, greatly exceeding the five flights originally programmed for it. Here’s hoping they can adapt and keep the helicopter flying, but whatever they do, it’ll have to wait a few weeks until Mars completes its conjunction and pops back out from behind the Sun.

With all the attention understandably paid to the recent 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, it’s easy to forget that barely a month after that day, a series of what appeared to be follow-on attacks started: the Anthrax Attacks. Members of Congress and media outlets were targeted via the mail with highly refined anthrax spores, leading to the deaths of five people, with dozens more injured and exposed to anthrax. IEEE Spectrum has an interesting article that goes into some of the technology that was rapidly deployed in an attempt to sanitize the mail, including electron beam and X-ray irradiation to kill any spores. The article also points out how this wasn’t the first time people were afraid of the mail; outbreaks of yellow fever in 1899 led to fumigation of the mail with sulfur, after perforating it with a wicked-looking paddle.

Attention PCB-design newbies — now’s your chance to learn the entire PCB design process from the ground up, with the guidance of industry professionals. TeachMePCB is back again this year, offering to teach you everything you need to know about properly laying out a PCB design in pretty much any EDA software you want. The course requires a two- to five-hour commitment every week for two months, after which you’ll have designed a PCB for a macropad using a Raspberry Pi Pico. The course facilitator is Mark Hughes from Royal Circuits, who did a great Hack Chat with us last year on PCB finishes. This seems like a great way to get up to speed on PCB design, so if you’re interested, act soon — 460 people are already signed up, and the deadline is October 10.

Some of us really love factory tours, no matter what the factory is making. All the better when the factory makes cool electronics stuff, and better still when it’s our friends at Adafruit showing us around their New York City digs. True, it’s a virtual tour, but it has pretty much become a virtual world over the last couple of years, and it’s still a great look inside the Adafruit factory. Hackaday got an in-person tour back in 2015, but we didn’t know their building used to be a Westinghouse radio factory. In fact, the whole area was once part of the famed “Radio Row” that every major city seemed to have from the 1920s to the 1960s. It’s good to get a look inside a real manufacturing operation, especially one that’s right in the heart of a city.

And finally, those with a fear of heights might want to avoid watching this fascinating film on the change-out of a TV transmitter antenna. The tower is over 1,500′ (450 m) tall, lofting an aging antenna over the flat Florida terrain. Most of the footage comes from body-mounted cameras on the riggers working the job, including the one very brave soul who climbed up the partially unbolted antenna to connect it to the Sikorsky S64 Skycrane helicopter. It’s a strange combination of a carefully planned and slowly executed ballet, punctuated by moments of frenetic activity and sheer terror. The mishap when releasing the load line after the new antenna was placed could easily have swept the whole rigging crew off the antenna, but luckily nobody was injured.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: October 3, 2021”

Living The Dream: New PCB For A Dirt-Cheap Calculator Watch

Well, this hack has us tickled pink. We love the idea of buying some really cheap piece of technology and doing something amazing with it, and this is a textbook example of that. [davedarko] found the cutest little calculator watch on Ali Express and is working on making a new PCB for it. The plan is to use an ARM processor and Arduino and add a few extras like 24-hour mode and a pink (or potentially RGB) backlight. The new brain will be an ATSAML22G18A, which has an on-board LCD controller and exactly one I/O pin to spare without charlieplexing the buttons.

One of [davedarko]’s primary goals is to keep the LCD and figure out how to talk to it. The first order of business was reverse engineering the watch’s LCD controller by sussing out the secrets from beneath the black blob of epoxy. This was an eye-opening experience as [davedarko] had never worked directly with LCDs before. A strange reading made him bust out the oscilloscope. Long-ish and informative story short, [davedarko] found out that it uses a bias of 1/2 for generating the wave necessary to multiplex the segments and keep the signal alternating. This is definitely one to watch!

We love timepieces around here and have seen all kinds of hacks, especially on Casio watches. Want dark mode? Done. Enable the hidden countdown timer? We’ve got that, too. And have you ever wondered just how water-resistant the F91W is?

Design An Electronic Catan Board In A Day

One of the things that makers sometimes skip over is the design of the project that they’re creating. Some of us don’t do any design at all, we just pants it. The design part of making something can take quite a while – there is sketching to do, as well as 3d-modelling and PCB creation. [Sam March] wanted to try and create something interesting where he did the design in a single day. The result is, or will be, a 3D printed, electronic, Settlers of Catan game board.

Continue reading “Design An Electronic Catan Board In A Day”