Ironclad Tips For Copper-Clad Prototyping

The idea of trying to prototype with SMD parts on the fly sounds like insanity, right? But then we watched [Leo Fernekes] walk calmly and carefully through his process (video, embedded below). Suddenly, SMD prototyping jumped onto our list of things to try soon.

[Leo] speaks from a lot of experience and tight client timelines, so this video is a fourteen-minute masterclass in using copper-clad board as a Manhattan-style scratch pad. He starts by making a renewable tool for scraping away copper by grinding down and shaping an old X-Acto blade into a kind of sharpened Swiss Army knife bottle opener shape. That alone is mind-blowing, but [Leo] keeps on going.

In these prototypes, he uses the through-hole version of whatever microcontroller is in the design. For everything else, he uses the exact SMT part that will end up on the PCB that someone else is busy designing in the meantime.

After laying the board out on paper, [Leo] carves out the islands of conductivity, beep-checks them for shorts, shines the whole thing with steel wool, and goes to town.

The tips and tricks keep coming as he makes jumps and joins ground planes with bare copper wire insulated with heat-proof Teflon tubing, and lays out the benefits of building up a stash of connectors and shelling out the money for a good crimp tool.

And why do you need a good crimp tool? Because when they’re done properly, crimped connections are stronger and more reliable than solder. There’s a lot more to them than you might think.

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Grace Under Pressure: Shelley Green Celebrates Crimped Connections

We think it’s pretty safe to assume that most of the electrical connections our readers are making out there involve solder or solder paste. But we’ve all made a crimp connection or two in our lifetimes. Maybe you’ve squeezed a butt connector here and there, or made an Ethernet cable. Beyond getting the wiring order right in the Ethernet cable, how much did you wonder about what was happening inside the connector?

It may seem like solder is the superior option for making a low-resistance electrical connection. After all, you’re welding metals together with another metal. And this is usually all fine and good for circuit boards with sedentary indoor lives. But if a joint needs to be mechanically stable and survive in potentially harsh environments, you don’t want an alloy holding things together. You want metal to metal contact, and crimping is where it’s at.

A well-made crimp should last for several decades, but as Shelley Green explained in her talk at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, good quality crimps don’t happen by accident. Good crimps are meticulously designed, and carefully executed from start to finish.

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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.

These Wire Strippers Are Made From PCBs

The rise in cheap PCB fabrication has made old-school prototyping methods such as wire wrapping somewhat passé, but it still has its place. And if you’re going to wire wrap, you’re going to want a quick and easy way to strip that fine Kynar-insulated wire. So why not use PCB material to make this handy wire-wrapping wire stripper?

The tool that [danielrp] built is pretty simple – just a pair of razor blades held together so as to form a narrow slot to cut insulation while leaving the conductor untouched. The body of the tool is formed of two PCBs, between which the blades are sandwiched. [danielrp] designed the outline of the PCBs in DraftSight, then exported a DXF into EAGLE to make the Gerbers. The fabricated boards needed a little post-processing, including tapping the holes on one side to accept the screws that hold the tool together. We were surprised that FR4 took the threads at all, but it seems to work for this low-torque application. The disposable snap-type blades were sandwiched between the PCBs and the gap between them adjusted for nick-free stripping. The video below shows the design and build process.

We always appreciate homemade tools, and the fact that you can get a stack of PCBs for almost nothing makes us wonder what else we could use them for. We recently saw them used in a unique word clock, and even turned into a folding circuit sculpture.

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Making Your Breadboard Projects A Little More Permanent

Many a budding electronics maker got their start not with a soldering iron, but with the humble breadboard. With its push connections, the breadboard enables electronics experimentation without requiring the specialised skill of soldering or any dangerous hot tools. What it lacks is a certain robustness that can make all but the simplest projects rather difficult to execute. [Runtime Micro] have shared a few tips on making things just a little more robust, however.

Applied correctly, these techniques have the added bonus of making a project neat, tidy, and easy to troubleshoot.

The fundamental principle behind this process is replacing point-to-point jumper wires with custom cables, made using 0.1″ pitch headers and wire-wrapping techniques. Other techniques include pinning down components with Blu-tack, and selecting components with the appropriate wire diameter to avoid them falling out of the breadboard’s spring clip contacts. There are also useful tips on using foam tape for appropriate strain relief.

While breadboards aren’t really suitable for projects dealing with high frequencies and can rapidly become unmanageable, these basic techniques should improve a project’s chance of success. These simple ways of improving connection quality and reducing the likelihood of things falling apart are likely to reduce frustration immensely.

However, once a maker has a taste for corralling electrons to do their bidding, soldering should be the first lesson on the agenda.

[Thanks to stockvu for the tip!]

String Art Robot Is An Autorouter In Reverse

In the depths of Etsy and Pinterest is a fascinating, if tedious, artform. String art, the process of nailing pins in a board and wrapping thread around the perimeter to create shapes and shading, The most popular project in this vein is something like putting the outline of a heart, in string, in the shape of your home state. Something like that, at least.

While this artform involves about as much effort as pallet wood furniture, there is an interesting computational aspect of it: you can create images with string art, and doing this is a very, very hard problem to solve with an algorithm. Researchers at TU Wien have brought out the best that string art has to offer. They’ve programmed an industrial robot to create portraits out of string.

The experimental setup for this is about as simple as it gets. It’s a circular frame studded with 256 hooks around the perimeter. An industrial robot arm takes a few kilometers of thread winds a piece of string around one of these hooks, then travels to another hook. Repeat that thousands and thousands of times, and you get a portrait of Ada Lovelace or Albert Einstein.

The wire wrapped backplane of a DEC PDP-11. This was assembled by a robot that was programmed with an autorouter. It’s also string art.

The real trick here is the algorithm that takes an image and translates it into the paths the string will take. This is an NP-hard problem, but it is a surprisingly well-studied problem. The first autorouters — the things you should never trust to route traces between the packages on your PCB — we created for wire wrapped computers. Here, computers would find the shortest path between whatever pins had to be connected together. There were, of course, limitations: pins could only have so many connections on them thanks to the nature of wire wrapping, and you couldn’t have one gigantic mass of wires for a parallel bus. The first autorouters were string art algorithms, only in reverse.

You can take a look at the complete publication here.

You’ll also find prior art (tee-hee) in our own pages. Here is an artist doing it by hand, and here’s a machine to do it for you if you’re lazy. We’ve even seen further work on the underlying algorithm on Hackaday.io.

Ask Hackaday: Whatever Happened To Wire Wrapping?

Back in the 70s when I started getting interested in electronics, tons of magazines catered to the hobbyist market. Popular Electronics was my favorite, and I think I remember the advertisements more than anything, probably because they outnumbered articles by a large margin. Looking back, it seemed like a lot of ad space was sold to companies hawking the tools and materials needed for wire wrapping, which was very popular for prototyping in the days before solderless breadboards were readily available. I remember beauty shots of neat rows of small, gold posts, with stripped wires wrapped evenly around them.

To the budding hobbyist, wire wrapping looked like the skill to have. With a huge selection of posts, terminals, and sockets for ICs and discrete components, as well as a wide range of manual and powered wrapping tools, it seemed like you could build anything with wire wrapping. But fast forward just a decade or so, and wire wrapping seemed to drop out of favor. And today — well, does anyone even wire wrap anymore?

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