[Carl] wanted to prototype his circuits quickly using printed circuit boards. He picked up a Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Mill and made a video about the results. His first attempt wasn’t perfect, as you could notice under the microscope. A few adjustments, though, and the result was pretty good.
Be warned, this mill is pretty expensive — anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000. The company claims it is a better choice than a conventional cheap mill because it uses a 26,000 RPM spindle and has high-resolution steppers. Because of its low backlash and high accuracy and repeatability, the company claims it can easily mill boards with 6 mil traces.
The build consists of an aluminium-framed CNC engraver, designed primarily for the production of PCBs. However, it can also handle plastic jobs, and aluminium if run slowly enough. Like most garage CNC projects, it runs with a combination of stepper motors and an Arduino. The cutting area is 16 cm x 16cm – more than enough for most hobby PCBs.
There are plenty of interesting details, such as the T-slot bed made from U-section steel bolted together, and the simple probe made from a microswitch. Perhaps most impressive though is the tight precision of the cuts. This is particularly important for PCB work, where otherwise minor issues could cause short or open circuits and make the resulting parts useless.
We know, we know. Getting PCBs professionally fabricated anymore is so cheap and easy that making them in-house is increasingly becoming something of a lost art. Like developing your own film. Or even using a camera that has film, for that matter. But when you’re in Brazil and it takes months for shipments to arrive like [Robson Couto] is, sometimes you’re better off sticking with the old ways.
The primary hardware issues [Robson] ran into were in the Z axis, as some poor component selections made the stock configuration wobble a bit too much. He replaced some flimsy standoffs as well as swapping in some bushings he salvaged from dead inkjet printers, and the movement got a lot tighter.
Despite the fact that the version of Grbl flashed onto the engraver’s cloned Arduino Uno supports Z leveling, it’s not actually enabled out of the box. [Robson] just needed to add some extra wiring to use the spindle’s bit as a probe on the copper clad board. He also went ahead and updated to the latest version of Grbl, as the one which ships with the machine is fairly old.
It’s 2017, and getting a PCB professionally made is cheaper and easier than ever. However, unless you’re lucky enough to be in Shenzhen, you might find it difficult to get them quickly, due to the vagaries of international shipping. Whether you want to iterate quickly on designs, or just have the convenience of speed, it can be useful to be able to make your own PCBs at home. [Timo Birnschein] had just such a desire and set about building a PCB mill that doesn’t suck.
It might sound obvious, but it bears thinking about — if you know you’re incapable of building a good PCB mill in a reasonable period of time, you might save yourself a lot of pain and lost weekends by just ordering PCBs elsewhere. [Timo] was fairly confident however that the build would be able to churn out some usable boards, however, and got to work.
The build is meant to be accessible to the average hacker who wants one. The laser cut & 3D printed parts are readily available these days thanks to online services that can manufacture for those who don’t have the machines at home. [Timo] uses a rotary multitool for a spindle, a common choice for a budget CNC build.
With the hardware complete, [Timo] has spent time working on optimising the software side of things. Through careful optimisation of the G-Code, [Timo] has been able to improve performance and reduce stress on the tooling. It’s not enough to just build a good mill — you’ve got to have your G-Code squared away as well.
Overall, the results speak for themselves. The boards don’t suck; the mill can do traces down to 8 mil, and even drill the holes. We’d love to have one on the workbench when busting out some quick prototypes. For another take on the home-built PCB mill, why not check out this snap-together version?
We know the concept from quadcopters, little robots, and generally things that are small enough to make use of their PCBs as a structural component. But an entire CNC machine, soldered together from a few dozen PCBs certainly takes it to the next level.
There is no doubt that 2mm thick fiber reinforced epoxy can be surprisingly rigid, although the Achilles heel of this method might be the solder joints. However, it looks like all load bearing, mechanical connections of the machine are supported by tightly interlocking “dovetail” finger-joints, which may help protecting all the solder connections from the strain hardening effects of continuous stress and spindle vibrations.
As you might expect, most of the wiring is embedded into the FR4 frame construction, and to squeeze the maximum value out of the PCB material, the motor driver boards interface via card edge connectors with the (currently Arduino based) controller board. In addition to the milling head, which features a brushless DC motor and a tool coupler, the team wants to develop heads for circuit printing, microscopy, pneumatic pick and place, hot air reflow, and 3D printing.
With all those cost-driven design choices, from the one-step manufacturing process of the frame and wiring to the dismissal of screws and nuts from the frame assembly, the “FR4 Machine Shield” could indeed become one of the cheapest CNC machine kits on the market. The team targets an introduction price of $400 during a Kickstarter campaign in June 2016. Can they deliver? [Gerrit] checked Pocket NC out at the Faire and ended up raving about how they run their business.
Many of us may qualify as “makers,” but how about a “maker of machines?” [Danielle Applestone] tells us what kinks to look for whilst embarking on your hardware startup adventure. Co-founder of Other Machine Co, the company that makes a PCB Mill that holds tolerances as tight as a thousandth of an inch, [Danielle] holds degrees in chemistry and materials science from MIT and UT Austin. While she may tell you that the math for running a hardware company is easy, knowing what numbers to crunch and keeping track of them has been part of her key to success. So take 20, and give yourself a moment to take in [Danielle’s] tips from her Hackaday Superconference talk on beating the hurdles ahead in the land of hardware startups.
Milling a PCB at home is a great way to save some time and money if you are making one-off circuit boards. There is a downside though, it’s a little tough. Sure, just export your Eagle design to CNC-Machine-understandable g-code and fire up your mill…. well, it’s not that easy.
The copper on a PCB blank can be anywhere from about 0.001 to 0.006 inches thick. When milling a board the ideal situation is to mill just deep enough to get through the copper but not cut too deep into the fiberglass backer board. Cutting too deep can weaken the board, break a bit, or in an extreme case, cut through the entire board.
Shallow cuts can result in another problem, inconsistent cut depth over the surface of the board. Check out the left photo above. The traces on the left side of the board appears to have just faded away. This happened because the circuit board was not flat. The side where the traces are missing from is lower than the other so the tool bit is not able to reach that part of the board. Since an ideal depth of cut is about 0.010 inches, even a very small amount of waviness or out of flatness can cause a serious problem in the milling process. If you have a hard time picturing what 0.010 inches is, think the thickness of two pieces of paper, it’s not a lot. There are two main contributors to the flatness problem; the PCB board and/or the machine’s bed. If the bed is not flat, the PCB won’t be. Even if the bed is flat, the PCB may be warped or bent.
PCB fabrication enthusiast [daedelus] had this exact problem, and in true hacker fashion, decided to do something about it. He created a software program called AutoLeveller that takes a g-code file and adds a probing section to the beginning before the milling operation. When the modified g-code file is run on the CNC Machine, it first probes the surface of the PCB in a grid pattern and maps the flatness variation of the PCB’s surface. Then, when running the program, it adjusts the height of the tool bit on the fly so that the actual depth of cut is consistent over the entire board, regardless of how flat or not it is. The result is a clean and usable PCB on the first try.
There is one catch: the Machine Control Software has to be set up to accept a probe. This is easy to do if communicating to the CNC Machine via a computers parallel port. An input pin on the parallel port is pulled high with a resistor and connected electrically to the PCB board. The tool spindle is grounded with a clip lead. When the tool touches the board, the input pin is pulled low and the Machine Control Software records the tool height for that specific XY position.