The security conference LayerOne 2018 took place this past weekend in Pasadena, California. A schedule conflict meant most of our crew was at Hackaday Belgrade but I went to LayerOne to check it out as a first-time attendee. It was a weekend full of deciphering an enigmatic badge, hands-on learning about physical security, admiring impressive demos, and building a crappy robot.
Printed circuit boards have never been cheaper or easier to make. We’re not that far removed from a time where, if you wanted a printed circuit board, your best and cheapest option would be to download some proprietary software from a board house, use their terrible tool, and send your board off to be manufactured. A few copies of a 5x5cm board would cost $200. Now, anyone can use free (as in beer, if not speech) software, whip up a board, and get a beautifully printed circuit board for five dollars. It has never been easier to make a printed circuit board, and with that comes a new medium of artistic expression. Now, we can make art on PCBs.
PCB as Art
For the last year or so, Hackaday has been doing a deep-dive into the state of artistic PCBs. By far our biggest triumph is the Tindie Blinky Badge, an artistic representation of a robot dog with blinking LED eyes. [Andrew Sowa] turned some idiot into PCB coinage, and that same idiot experimented with multicolor silkscreen at last year’s DEF CON.
Others have far surpassed anything we could ever come up with ourselves; [Trammel Hudson] created an amazing blinky board using the standard OSHPark colors, and [Blake Ramsdell] is crafting full panels of PCB art. The work of Boldport and [Saar Drimer] has been featured in Marie Claire. The world of art on printed circuit boards has never been more alive, there has never been more potential, and the artistic output of the community is, simply, amazing. We are witnessing the evolution of a new artistic medium.
Printed circuit boards are a limited medium. Unless you want to shell out big bucks for more colors of silkscreen, weird colors of soldermask, or even multiple colors of soldermask, you will be limited to the standard stackup found in every board house. One color, the fiberglass substrate, will be a pale yellow. The copper layer will be silver or gold, depending on the finish. The soldermask will be green, red, yellow, blue, black, white, and of course purple if you go through OSH Park. The silkscreen will be white (or black if you go with a white soldermask). What I’m getting at is that the palette of colors available for PCB art is limited… or at least it has been.
For a few months now, Hackaday has been experimenting with a new process for adding colors to printed circuit boards. This is a manufacturing process that translates well into mass production. This is a process that could, theoretically, add dozens of colors to any small PCB. It’s just an experiment right now, but we’re happy to report some limited success. It’s now easy — and cheap — to add small amounts of color to any printed circuit board.
For the last few months, I’ve been up to my neck in electronic conference badges. This year, I created the single most desirable badge at DEF CON. I also built a few Tindie badges, and right now I’m working on the logistics behind the Hackaday SuperConference badge. Sit tight on that last one — we’re doing something really, really special next month.
Most badge projects are one-off production runs. This is to be expected from a piece of hardware that’s only meant to be distributed at a single event. The Tindie badge is different. It’s now a thing, and we’re building multiple badges for all the cons and conferences Hackaday and Tindie are attending for the rest of the year. This means I have the opportunity to do hardware revisions on the Tindie badge. Right now I’ve built three versions of the Tindie and we’ve distributed about two thousand of these kits at DEF CON, Maker Faire New York, and the Open Hardware Summit.
After about two thousand units, I think we finally have this down. This is how I designed three versions of hardware in as many months and cut the BOM cost of each badge in half. This is bordering on a marginally impressive piece of engineering, and a great lesson on BOM cost optimization.
Last month I had the pleasure of creating a new piece of hardware for Tindie. [Jasmine], the queen bee of Tindie, and I designed, developed, and kitted three hundred Tindie badges in ten days leading up to DEF CON. The badges were a complete success, they introduced soldering to a lot of people, and were loved by all.
This badge was such a rousing success, it’s now official Tindie swag. We’ll be handing out a few of these blinky badges at upcoming events. But as of right now we’ve already handed out our entire stock, that means we need to build more. The second run meant ordering a thousand PCBs.
We could just do another run, and order a few more PCBs from the Gerbers I’ve already designed. I’m not really happy with the first version of this badge, though, and this is an opportunity to improve my design. This also gives me an opportunity to demonstrate my workflow for creating artistic boards in Eagle.
Effectively, what I’ll be demonstrating here is the creation of the Benchoff Nickel. A few months ago, [Andrew Sowa] took a portrait of yours truly, changed the colors to what is available on a normal OSHPark PCB, and turned that into different layers in KiCad. There are a few differences here. Firstly, I’ll be using a blue solder mask, although the same technique can be applied to green, red, yellow, white, or black soldermask. Secondly, this is Eagle, and I’m going to do the majority of the work with a BMP import. This is the fast and easy way to do things; if you want a KiCad tutorial, check out [Andrew]’s work, or my overly-involved multiple silkscreen process for KiCad. I don’t recommend this overly-involved process if you can help it. It took 20 hours to do the art for my previous project in KiCad, and I estimate it would have taken two in Eagle.
With that said, here’s the easy, cheap, and fast way of doing artistic boards in Eagle.
DEF CON is starting right now, and this is the year of #badgelife. For the last few years, independent hardware wizards have been creating and selling their own unofficial badges at DEF CON, but this year it’s off the charts. We’ve already taken a look at Bender Badges, BSD Puffer Fish, and the worst idea for a conference badge ever, and this is only scratching the surface.
This is also a banner year for the Hackaday / Tindie / Supplyframe family at DEF CON. We’re on the lookout for hardware. We’re sponsoring the IoT village, [Jasmine] — the high priestess of Tindie — and I will be spending some time in the Hardware Hacking Village, praising our overlords and saying the phrase, ‘like Etsy, but for electronics’ far too much. We’ll be showing people how to solder, fixing badges, and generally being helpful to the vast unwashed masses.
Obviously, this means we need our own unofficial DEF CON badge. We realized this on July 10th. That gave us barely more than two weeks to come up with an idea for a badge, design one, order all the parts, wait on a PCB order, and finally kit all the badges before lugging them out to DEF CON. Is this even possible? Surprisingly, yes. It’s almost easy, and there are zero excuses for anyone not to develop their own hardware badge for next year’s con.