Review: Testdriving LibrePCB Shows That It’s Growing Up Fast

There are a host of PCB CAD tools at the disposal of the electronic designer from entry-level to multi-thousand-dollar workstation software. It’s a field in which most of the players are commercial, and for the open-source devotee there have traditionally been only two choices. Both KiCad and gEDA are venerable packages with legions of devoted fans, but it is fair to say that they both present a steep learning curve for newcomers. There is however another contender in the world of open-source PCB CAD, in the form of the up-and-coming LibrePCB.

This GPL-licensed package has only been in development for a few years. LibrePCB brought out its first official release a little over a year ago, and now stands at version 0.1.3 with builds for GNU/Linux, Windows, MacOS, and FreeBSD. It’s time to download it and run it through its paces, to see whether it’s ready to serve its purpose.

Continue reading “Review: Testdriving LibrePCB Shows That It’s Growing Up Fast”

Reverse Engineer PCBs With SprintLayout

[Bwack] had some scanned pictures of an old Commodore card and wanted to recreate PC boards from it. It’s true that he could have just manually redrawn everything in a CAD package, but that’s tedious. Instead, he used SprintLayout 6.0 which allows you to import pictures and use them as a guide for recreating a PCB layout.

You can see the entire process including straightening the original scans. There are tools that make it very easy to place new structures over the original scanned images.

Continue reading “Reverse Engineer PCBs With SprintLayout”

Drill Thrice, Solder Once

If you design printed circuit boards, then you will have also redesigned printed circuit boards. Nobody gets it right the first time, every time. Sometimes you can solder a scrap of 30gauge wire, flip a component 180°, or make a TO-92 transistor do that little pirouette thing where the legs go every-which-way. If you angered the PCB deities, you may have to access a component pad far from an edge. [Nathan Seidle], the founder of Sparkfun, finds himself in this situation, but all hope is not lost.

Our first thought is to desolder everything, then take a hot iron and tiny wires to each pad. Of course, this opens up a lot of potential for damage to the chip, cold joints, and radio interference. Accessing the pin in vivo has risks, but they are calculated. The idea is to locate the pin, then systematically drill from the backside and expose the copper. [Nate] also discovers that alcohol will make the PCB transparent so you can peer at the underside to confirm you have found your mark.

In a real, “fight fire with fire” idea, you can rework with flex PCBs or push your PCB Fu to the next level and use PCBs as your enclosure.

Hackaday Superconference: Nick Poole On Boggling The Boardhouse

By now we are all used to the role of the printed circuit board in artwork, because of the burgeoning creativity in the conference and unofficial #BadgeLife electronic badge scenes. When the masters of electronic design tools turn their hand to producing for aesthetic rather than technical reasons, the results were always going to be something rather special.

Nick Poole is an ace wrangler of electrons working for SparkFun, and as such is someone with an impressive pedigree when it comes to PCB design. Coming on stage sporting a beret with an awesome cap badge, his talk at the recent Hackaday Superconference concerned his experience in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in PCB manufacture. It was a primer in the techniques required to create special work in the medium of printed circuit boards, and it should be essential viewing for anybody with an interest in this field.

Though he starts with the basics of importing graphics into a PCB design package, the meat of his talk lies in going beyond the mere two dimensions of a single PCB into the third dimension either by creating PCBs that interlock, or by stacking boards.

Continue reading “Hackaday Superconference: Nick Poole On Boggling The Boardhouse”

Tidy Board Rework Uses Flex PCBs, No Wires

PCB rework for the purpose of fixing unfortunate design problems tends to involve certain things: thin wires (probably blue) to taped or glued down components, and maybe some areas of scraped-off soldermask. What are not usually involved are flexible PCBs, but [Paul Bryson] shows us exactly how flex PCBs can be used to pull off tricky rework tasks.

It all started when [Paul] had a run of expensive PCBs with a repeated error; a design mistake that occurred in several places in the board. Fixing with a bunch of flying wires leading to some glued-on components just wasn’t his idea of tidy. A more attractive fix would be to make a small PCB that could be soldered in place of several of the ICs on the board, but this idea had a few problems: the space available into which to cram a fix wasn’t always the same, and the footprints of the ICs to be replaced were too small to accommodate a PCB with castellated mounting holes as pads anyway.

It’s about then that he got a visit from the Good Idea Fairy, recalling that fab houses have recently offered “flex” PCBs at a reasonable cost. By mounting the replacement parts on a flex PCB, the board-level connection could reside on the other end of an extension. Solder one end directly to the board, and the whole flexible thing could be bent around or under on a case-by-case basis, and secured in whatever way made sense. Soldering the pads of the flex board to the pads on the PCB was a bit tricky, but easy enough to pull off reliably with a bit of practice. A bonus was that the flex PCB is transparent, so solder bridges are easy to spot. He even mocked up a solution for QFP packages that allows easy pin access.

Flex PCBs being available to hobbyists and individuals brings out fresh ideas and new twists on old ones, which is why we held a Flexible PCB Design Contest earlier this year. Repairs were definitely represented as applications, but not to the extent that [Paul] has shown. Nice work!

Journey Through The Inner Workings Of A PCB

Most electronics we deal with day to day are comprised of circuit boards. No surprise there, right? But how do they work? This might seem like a simple question but we’ve all been in the place where those weird green or black sheets are little slices of magic. [Teddy Tablante] at Branch Eduction put together a lovingly crafted walkthrough flythrough video of how PCB(A)s work that’s definitely worth your time.

[Teddy]’s video focuses on unraveling the mysteries of the PCBA by peeling back the layers of a smartphone. Starting from the full assembly he separates components from circuit board and descends from there, highlighting the manufacturing methods and purpose behind what you see.

What really stands out here is the animation; at each step [Teddy] has modeled the relevant components and rendered them on the PCBA in 3D. Instead of relying solely on hard to understand blurry X-ray images and 2D scans of PCBAs he illustrates their relationships in space, an especially important element in understanding what’s going on underneath the solder mask. Even if you think you know it all we bet there’s a pearl of knowledge to discover; this writer learned that VIA is an acronym!

If you don’t like clicking links you can find the video embedded after the break. Credit to friend of the Hackaday [Mike Harrison] for acting as the best recommendation algorithm and finding this gem.

Continue reading “Journey Through The Inner Workings Of A PCB”

How Safe Is That Ultrasonic Bath For Flux Removal?

How do you clean the residual flux off your boards? There are plenty of ways to go about the job, ranging from “why bother?” to the careful application of isopropyl alcohol to every joint with a cotton swab. It seems like more and more people are turning to ultrasonic cleaners to get the job done, though, and for good reason: just dunk your board and walk away while cavitation does the work for you.

But just how safe is it to sonically blast the flux off your boards? [SDG Electronics] wanted to know, so he ran some cleaning tests to get to the bottom of things. On the face of it, dunking a PCB in an aqueous cleaning solution seems ill-advised; after all, water and electricity famously don’t mix. But assuming all the nooks and crannies of a board can be dried out before power is applied, the cleaning solution itself should be of little concern. The main beef with ultrasonic cleaning seems to be with the acoustic energy coupling with mechanical systems on boards, such as crystal oscillators or micro-electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS) components, such as accelerometers or microphones. Such components could resonate with the ultrasonic waves and be blasted to bits internally.

To test this, [SDG Electronics] built a board with various potentially vulnerable components, including the popular 32.768-kHz crystal, cut for a frequency quite close to the cleaner’s fundamental. The video below goes into some detail on the before-and-after tests, but the short story is that nothing untoward happened to any of the test circuits. Granted, no components with openings as you might find on some MEMS microphones were tested, so be careful. After all, we know that ultrasound can deal damage, and if it can levitate tiny styrofoam balls, it might just do your circuit in.

Continue reading “How Safe Is That Ultrasonic Bath For Flux Removal?”