Desktop PCB Mill Review

[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.

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A 3D Printer To PCB Miller Conversion

Got a 3D printer? With a bit of work, you may also have a PCB miller. That’s the basis of this neat hack by [Gosse Adema], who converted an Anet A8 3D printer into a PCB miller by building a holder for a Dremel rotary tool and adapting the GCode. This approach means that the adaptations to the printer are minimal: the only hardware is a 3D-printed holder for the Dremel that replaces the print head. The result is an impressive PCB milling machine that can do double-sided PCBs and make through holes.

The excellent write-up that [Gosse] did on this hack describes how he converted the printer, and how he took an EagleCAD design and converted it into four GCode files. That’s one for each side of the PCB, one for through holes and one for the final outline of the PCB. These are then fed to the 3D printer and cut in turn with an appropriate milling bit on the Dremel.

We’ve featured a few similar conversions before, such as this vintage conversion of a Makerbot and this cheap engraver conversion, but this one is much more detailed than those, covering the entire process from PCB design to final product.

Review: LinkSprite Mini CNC

It’s a great time to be a hobbyist. No matter how you feel about the Arduino/Raspberry Pi effect, the influx of general enthusiasm and demand it has created translates to better availability of components, a broader community, and loads of freely available knowledge. When people have access to knowledge and ideas, great things can happen. Tools that were once restricted to industrial use become open source, and the price of entry-level versions goes into a nosedive.

As we’ve seen over the last several years, the price of cheap 3D printers keeps falling while the bar of quality keeps rising. It’s happening with laser cutters and carving tools, too. Strolling through Microcenter a few weeks ago, I spotted a new toy on the back wall next to the 3D printers. It was LinkSprite’s desktop mini CNC. They didn’t have one out on display, but there were two of them in boxes on the shelf. And boy, those boxes were small. Laughably small. I wondered, could this adorable machine really be any good? To some, the $200 price tag suggests otherwise. To me, the price tag made it justifiable, especially considering that the next price point for a hobby CNC mill is at least twice as much. I took my phone out and stood there frantically looking for reviews, documentation, anything that was available. It seemed that the general, if sparse consensus is that this thing isn’t a total waste of money. Oh, and there’s a wiki.

According to LinkSprite’s wiki, this little machine will engrave wood, plastic, acrylic, PVC, and PCBs. It will specifically not engrave metal (PCB copper notwithstanding). I’m a bit leery of the chemicals used in the PCB etching process, so the idea of engraving them instead was especially tempting. I pulled the trigger.

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Guide: Why Etch A PCB When You Can Mill?

I recall the point I started taking electronics seriously, although excited, a sense of dread followed upon the thought of facing the two main obstacles faced by hobbyists and even professionals: Fabricating you own PCB’s and fiddling with the ever decreasing surface mount footprints. Any resistance to the latter proves futile, expensive, and frankly a bit silly in retrospect. Cheap SMD tools have made it extremely easy to store, place, and solder all things SMD.

Once you’ve restricted all your hobbyist designs/experiments to SMD, how do you go about producing the PCBs needed for prototyping? Personally, I dread the thought of etching my own boards. The process is laborious and involves messy chemicals and specially sensitized PCB’s — none of which interest me. I’ve only ever done it a few times, and have promised myself never to do it again. Professional but cheap PCB manufacturing is more like it board pooling services such as OSH park have made this both easy and affordable — if you can wait for the turnaround.

So what are the alternatives? If you are really serious about swift prototyping from your own Lab, I put forth the case of milling your own PCB’s. Read on as I take you through the typical workflow from design to prototype and convince you to put up with the relatively high start up cost of purchasing a PCB mill.

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Blob Grid Array Technique Mounts Board-To-Board

[Howard Matthews] mills his own PCBs, and man, does he hate drilling through-holes. Manually changing the bits between engraving and drilling after isolation routing? What is this? The stone age? [Howard] decided to rethink his DIY PCB manufacturing process, and came to one essential conclusion: Only a fraction of these drills are actually necessary.

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FR4 Machine Shield Is A CNC Milling Machine From FR4 PCB

The people behind the PocketNC heard you like CNC PCB mills, so they milled you a PCB mill out of PCB. They announced their surprising new open source hardware product, a pocket sized 3-axis CNC machine entirely made out of FR4 PCB material, aptly named “FR4 Machine Shield”, at this year’s Bay Area Maker Faire.

UPDATE: The FR4 Machine Shield is now on Kickstarter

fr4_thumbWe 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.

Enjoy their teaser video below!

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Danielle Applestone And The Story Of Every Othermill

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.

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