As we’ve seen with some recent posts on the subject here at Hackaday, there seems to be a growing schism within the community about the production of PCBs. Part of the community embraces (relatively) cheap professional fabrication, where you send your design off and get a stack of PCBs in the mail a couple weeks later. Others prefer at home methods of creating PCBs, such as using a CNC, laser engraver, or even the traditional toner transfer. These DIY PCBs take some skill and dedication to produce, but the advantage is that you can have the board in hand the same day you design it. But there may be a third option that seems to have slipped through the cracks.
[Virgil] writes in with a very interesting method of producing professional looking prototype PCBs that doesn’t involve weeks of waiting for the results, nor does it require any complicated techniques or specialized equipment. In this method, a UV printer is used to deposit your mask directly onto the copper clad board, which you then etch with whatever solution you like. Don’t have a UV printer you say? No worries, there’s probably somebody at the mall that does.
As [Virgil] explains, the little kiosks at the mall which offer to personalize items for customers generally use a UV printer which allows them to shoot ink on nearly any material. Instead of asking them to put a logo on the back of your phone, you’ll just be asking them to put the vector file of your mask, which you can bring along on a USB flash drive, onto the bare copper board. They may tell you they can’t guarantee the ink will stick to the bare copper, but just tell them you’re willing to take the risk. It’s one of those situations in which your money will be glad to speak on your behalf.
After the UV printer does its thing, the mask might be somewhat fragile. [Virgil] likes to wrap the boards in plastic for the ride home to make sure they don’t get damaged. Then it’s a quick dunk in the etching solution followed by a rinse and some isopropyl alcohol to get the remainder of the UV ink off. The results really do speak for themselves: nice sharp lines with exceptionally little manual work.
The availability of low-cost, insanely high-quality PCBs has really changed how we do electronics. Here at Hackaday we see people ditching home fabrication with increasing frequency, and going to small-run fab for their prototypes and projects. Today you can get a look at the types of factory processes that make that possible. [Scotty Allen] just published a (sponsored) tour of a PCB fab house that shows off the incredible machine tools and chemical baths that are never pondered by the world’s electronics consumers. If you have an appreciation PCBs, it’s a joy to follow a design through the process so take your coffee break and let this video roll.
Several parts of this will be very familiar. The photo-resist and etching process for 2-layer boards is more or less the same as it would be in your own workshop. Of course the panels are much larger than you’d ever try at home, and they’re not using a food storage container and homemade etchant. In fact the processes are by and large automated which makes sense considering the volume a factory like this is churning through. Even moving stacks of boards around the factory is show with automated trolleys.
What we find most interesting about this tour is the multi-layer board process, the drilling machines, and the solder mask application. For boards that use more than two layers, the designs are built from the inside out, adding substrate and copper foil layers as they go. It’s neat to watch but we’re still left wondering how the inner layers are aligned with the outer. If you have insight on this please sound off in the comments below.
The drilling process isn’t so much a surprise as it is a marvel to see huge machines with six drill heads working on multiple boards at one time. It sure beats a Dremel drill press. The solder mask process is one that we don’t often see shown off. The ink for the mask is applied to the entire board and baked just to make it tacky. A photo process is then utilized which works much in the same way photoresist works for copper etching. Transparent film with patterns printed on it cures the solder mask that should stay, while the rest is washed away in the next step.
Boards continue through the process to get silk screen, surface treatment, and routing to separate individual boards from panels. Electrical testing is performed and the candy making PCB fab process is complete. From start to finish, seeing the consistency and speed of each step is very satisfying.
Through-hole assembly means bending leads on components and putting the leads through holes in the circuit board, then soldering them in place, and trimming the wires. That took up too much space and assembly time and labor, so the next step was surface mount, in which components are placed on top of the circuit board and then solder paste melts and solders the parts together. This made assembly much faster and cheaper and smaller.
Now we have embedded components, where in order to save even more, the components are embedded inside the circuit board itself. While this is not yet a technology that is available (or probably even desirable) for the Hackaday community, reading about it made my “holy cow!” hairs tingle, so here’s more on a new technology that has recently reached an availability level that more and more companies are finding acceptable, and a bit on some usable design techniques for saving space and components.
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.
One of [CNLohr]’s bigger claims to fame is his process for making glass PCBs. They’re pretty much identical to regular, fiberglass-based PCBs, but [CNLohr] is building circuits on microscope slides. We’ve seen him build a glass PCB LED clock and a Linux Minecraft Ethernet thing, but until now, [CNLohr]’s process of building these glass PCBs hasn’t been covered in the depth required to duplicate these projects.
At the highest level of understanding, [CNLohr]’s glass PCBs really aren’t any different from traditional homebrew PCBs made on copper clad board. There’s a substrate, and a film of copper that is etched away to produce traces and circuits. The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details for this build. Let’s dig deeper.
The next great advancement in homebrew electronics is an easy way to turn copper clad board into functional circuit boards. This has been done since the 60s with etch resist pens, sheets of etch resist rub-on transfers, the ever-popular photocopy and clothes iron, and now with small CNC mills. It’s still a messy, slow, and expensive process. [johnowhitaker] and [esot.eric] are trying to solve the latter of these problems with a mini PCB printer made out of DVD drives.
Playing around with the guts of a DVD drive is something [john] and [eric] have been doing for a while now, and for good reason. There’s a lot of interesting tech in DVD drives, with motors, steppers, and gears able to make very, very accurate and precise movements. Most PCBs aren’t very big, either, so a laser cutter that can only traverse an area a few inches square isn’t that much of a downside in this case.
With a small diode laser mounted to a CNC gantry constructed out of DVD drives, the process of making a PCB is actually pretty simple. First, a slurry of laser printer toner and alcohol is applied to the board. Next, the laser on this PCB printer lases over the traces and copper fills, melting the toner. The board is removed, the excess toner wiped off, and the unwanted copper is melted away. Simple, even if it is a little messy.
Of course this method cannot do plated traces like your favorite Internet-based board house, but this does have a few advantages over any other traditional homebrew method. It’s cheap, since CD and DVD drive mechanisms are pretty much standardized between manufacturers. It’s also easy to add soldermask printing to this build, given that soldermasks can be cured with light. It’s a very cool build, and one that would find a home in thousands of garages and hackerspaces around the world.
Everyone has their favorite process for PCB fabrication, as long as you’re a happy hacker I don’t think it really matters. But in this post I thought it might be interesting to describe my personal process, and some of the options available.
Making your own at home
Etching is the classic PCB fabrication option for the home hacker. It’s been many, many years since I etched a PCBs but it can produce interesting results. Some people don’t like it, and I’d personally tend to avoid it as a messy and finicky process. But, if you only need 1 or 2 layer boards with large features (through-hole components are best of course) it can be a viable option. In some cases, I think etched boards look awesome and are a great fit. One example is the skull etching shown to the right. The oxidation and discoloration of the boards adds to the design aesthetic in this case.
For those with a bigger budget a professional milling machine might be a viable choice. I’ve used an Accurate CNC in the past (LPKF and others make mills too), but this is an expensive option (no online pricing, but if $10,000 USD is a lot for you don’t bother). The accurate mill is pretty awesome, it can be fitted with a vacuum bed, automatic tool changer and vision system for alignment. The mill can produce high quality two layer boards with all the holes and vias drilled out. The final step of filling the vias is however manual, but compared to etched boards the results are pretty professional (the mill itself uses milled PCBs!). They claim a 0.1mm (4 mil) track size, I’ve never tried tracks this small but surface mount components were not a problem.
While a fun toy, it’s worth considering if you really need a PCB mill. The only case where they’re really valuable is if you want to be able to iterate over a design with less than a days turn around. This can be useful in RF or low noise designs where you might want to experiment with different layouts, but for other projects the price of a good mill can pay for quick turn around (1 or 2 days from order submission to delivery) on a lot of boards.
Years ago commercial fabrication used to be a very expensive and finicky process. For the most part you’d need to order a full panel putting the service outside of most hobbyists reach. Generating gerbers and drill files to the fabs specification could also be a process fraught with complication.
These days services that aggregate designs onto a single panel and break them out for distribution are common. For my work I mostly stick with OSHPark and SeeedStudio whose services complement each other well. I’ve also used Itead and found them compatible with Seeed (with the added benefit that they supply free boards for open projects).
Using OSHPark gives me the warm fuzzies. A child of the hacker community, born out of DorkbotPDX, all OSHPark’s boards are fabbed in the US (check out the great amphour interview for more details). Their services are limited to either 2 or 4 layer boards (always in purple, and always coated with gold (ENIG)), in 6×6 (6 mil traces with 6 mil spacing) or 5×5. I rarely attempt BGA boards so the 2 layer service works out great for me. OSHPark’s minimum order is 3 boards, which is perfect for prototyping. The gold plating also provides a nice finish, which both protects the board from oxidation and provides a nice surface to solder to. The main reason I use OSHPark however is that they’re cheap for small boards and have a relatively fast turn around (I recently purchased 3 tiny 20x15mm boards for $2.40 including shipping which was unbeatable). From OSHPark in the US to the UK my boards take about 2 weeks to arrive. They’ve also automatically upgrade boards to their super-swift service for free when there’s spare capacity. Their service is pretty slick, and provides a rendering of the gerbers prior to ordering as a final check which comes in very handy.
Seeed on the other hand are much cheaper for larger size boards and volume orders. They also provide more color and finishing options. The cheapest option at Seeed is green PCBs with HASL finish (hot air solder leveling). From Seeed, my boards usually take about a month to arrive (there are a few delivery options, but in my experience this is about as fast as it gets and faster shipping services often make using Seeed less attractive).
The image to the right shows a couple of very simple boards I had manufactured at both OSHPark and Seeed. I’ve never had a fabrication issues with boards from either service (though I prefer the ENIG finish).
Partly due to the limitations imposed by using commercial fabs I pipeline my projects. I send projects out to fab early in the design process and then switch to another design. When the board comes back I bring it up, bodge as required, and iterate over the layout. This works well with a two-week turn around, so I mostly use OSHPark while prototyping.
My boards also tend to be quite small (Arduino shield size or a little bigger). With small boards like this OSHPark is usually on-par or cheaper than ordering from Seeed (whose minimum quantity is 10 boards). With boards of about 100x100mm or larger I consider Seeed as they become significantly cheaper.
As a hobbyist I also rarely need huge numbers of boards, but for workshops when I need 10 or 20 boards I order from Seeed based on the final iteration of my prototypes. This is not only much cheaper than OSHPark, but I can get boards in a variety of colors to make workshops more interesting too.
This post has described some of the available options and my personal process. I hope it’s been interesting, but I’d love to hear about your favorite fabrication techniques, services and experiences both good and bad too. Please comment below!