Here at Hackaday we love all kinds of builds, and we celebrate anytime anyone puts parts together into something else. And while we love the quick and dirty builds, there’s just something about the fit and finish of this four-axis SMD stencil printer that really pushes our buttons.
This build comes to us from [Phillip], who like many surface-mount users was sick of the various tape-and-PCB methods that are commonly used to align the solder stencil with the PCB traces. His solution is this fully adjustable stencil holder made from aluminum extrusions joined by 3D-printed parts. The flip-up frame of the device has a pair of clamps for securely holding the stainless steel stencil. Springs on the clamp guide rods provide some preload to keep the stencil taut as well as protection from overtensioning.
The stencil can move in the X-, Y-, and Z-axes to line up with a PCB held with 3D-printed standoffs on a bed below the top frame. The bed itself rotates slightly to overcome any skew in alignment of the PCB. [Phillip] was aghast at the price of an off-the-shelf slew-ring bearing for that axis, but luckily was able to print up some parts and just use simple roller bearing to do the same thing for a fraction of the cost. The frame is shown in use below; the moment when the pads line up perfectly through the stencil holds is oddly satisfying.
This puts us in mind of a recent, similar stencil printer we covered. That one was far simpler, but either one of these beats the expedient alignment methods hands down.
Hackaday editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams sort through the hardware hacking gems of the week. There was a kerfuffle about whether a ventilator data dump from Medtronics was open source or not, and cool hacks from machine-learning soldering iron controllers to 3D-printing your own solder paste stencils. A motion light teardown shows it’s not being done with passive-infrared, we ask what’s the deal with Tim Berners-Lee’s decentralized internet, and we geek out about keyboards that aren’t QWERTY.
Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!
First of all, it turns out that converting a PCB solder paste layer into a 3D model is a bit of a challenge. A tool [Jan] found online didn’t work out, so he turned to OpenSCAD and wrote a script (available on GitHub) which takes two DXF files as input: one for the board outline, and one for the hole pattern. If you’re using KiCad, he has a Python script (also on GitHub) which will export the necessary data.
The result is a 3D model that is like a solder paste mask combined with a raised border to match the board outline, so that the whole thing self-aligns by fitting on top of the PCB. A handy feature, for sure. [Jan] says the model pictured here printed in less than 10 minutes. Workflow-wise, that certainly compares favorably to waiting for a stencil to arrive in the mail. But how do the actual solder-pasting results compare?
[Jan] says that the printed stencil had a few defects but it otherwise worked fine for 0.5 mm pitch ICs and 0402 resistors, and the fact that the 3D printed stencil self-registered onto the board was a welcome feature. That being said, it took a lot of work to get such results. [Jan]’s SLA printer is an Elegoo Mars, and he wasn’t able to have it create holes for 0.2 mm x 0.5 mm pads without first modifying his printer for better X/Y accuracy.
In the end, he admits that while a functional DIY solder stencil can be 3D printed in about 10 minutes, it’s not as though professionally-made stencils that give better results are particularly expensive or hard to get. Still, it’s a neat trick that could come in handy. Also, a quick reminder that we stepped through how to make a part in OpenSCAD in the past, which should help folks new to OpenSCAD make sense of [Jan]’s script.
The general process of circuit board assembly goes like this: You order your PCBs. You also order your components. For surface mount components, you apply solder paste to the pads, put the components on top, and then heat the board up so the solder paste flows and makes a bond. Then for through hole components you put the leads through the holes, and solder them with an iron or a solder wave or dip. Then you do an inspection for defects, program any microcontrollers, and finally test the completed board to make sure everything runs.
The tricky part is in volumes. If you’re only doing a few boards, it’s usually easiest to assemble them by hand. In the thousands you usually outsource. But new tools, and cheap hacked tools, have made it easier to automate small batches, and scale up into the thousands before outsourcing assembly.
If you are soldering with paste, a stencil makes life a lot easier. Sure, you can apply paste by hand with a syringe, but a modern PCB might have hundreds or even thousands of pads. Like a lot of us, [Robert Kirberich] doesn’t like paying to have stencils made and he wondered if he could use his 3D printer to make stencils. He found the answer was yes.
[Michel] was in need of a 9V battery connector, and in a brilliant bit of insight realized 9V batteries will plug directly into other 9V batteries (just… don’t do that. ever.) Taking a dead 9V, he tore it open, was disappointed by the lack of AAAA cells, and soldered some wires onto the connector.
Sometimes a project starts off as a reasonable endeavour, but quickly becomes something much more awesome. [Wallyman] started off building a hammock stand and ended up making a giant slingshot. We’re not one to argue with something that just became a million times more fun.
We’ve seen solder stencils made out of laser-cut metal, photoetched metal, plastic cut on a vinyl cutter, laser-cut plastic, and now finally one made on a 3D printer. It’s a pretty simple process – get the tCream layer into a .DXF file, then subtract it from a plastic plate in OpenSCAD.
Apple loves their proprietary screws, and when [Jim] tried to open his Macbook Air with the pentalobe screwdriver that came with an iPhone repair kit, he found it was too large. No problem, then: just grind it down. Now if only someone could tell us why a laptop uses smaller screws than a phone…
[Victor] has been playing around with an RTLSDR USB TV tuner dongle for a few months now. It’s a great tool, but the USB thumb drive form factor wasn’t sitting well with him. To fix that, he stuck everything into a classy painted Hammond 1590A enclosure. It looks much cooler, and now [Victor] can waterproof his toy and add a ferrite to clean things up.
Yes, we’ve seen our share of tutorials for making solder paste stencils, but [Felix] hit it out of the park with this one. It’s the definitive guide to making solder stencils at home, with quality as good as you would find in any professionally made stencil.
The material for the stencils comes from the same source as so many other DIY solder stencils – aluminium cans. The interior plastic coating and the exterior paint job are both removed with heat, acetone, and patience. After laying out the cream layer of his board in a PDF file, [Felix] used a fairly interesting transfer medium to get the toner onto the aluminum; cheap vinyl shelving paper attached to a piece of paper apparently makes for an ideal surface to transfer toner.
After transfer, the board is etched with HCl and peroxide. [Felix] is getting some very good results with his method, including a few very fine pitch IC footprints. It’s just as good as a professionally made, laser cut stainless stencil, and you probably already have all the necessary ingredients lying around your house. That’s a win anytime.