Thursday, 14 March 2013

Milling PCBs and Circuit Board Evolution

I've been dabbling in electronics for years. Most of the time this involves starting on a breadboard and then transferring your finished circuit onto stripboard.

More often than not I'm trying to squeeze far too much stuff into a tiny space, for example in my Zippo Burglar Alarm.
Which means that the resulting boards are an awful mess of wires and massive solder lumps.

For this post I'm going to use my Hellboy Corpse Locator light board as an example, because it's been through a fair few revisions.
It's a fairly simple piece, I needed a board to fit under the dial of my corpse locator prop, and make the dome light up red. A simple task electronically, but mechanically it's difficult to get everything to fit.

I started by using a tank cutter to cut disks out of stripboard.

I was surprised by how well this worked, it made it easier, not having to shape each board by hand, but each one still took about 10 minutes.

I wanted to use surface mount LEDs, they were on the copper side, meaning everything else was on the reverse side. Which left me trying to find a way to create a second battery contact on the reverse side of the board.

The most reliable solution I could come up with was stitching a grid with copper wire.

Again, at the time, I was proud of my little inovation, conductive paint had too much resistance, glueing foil to the board had been problematic, this wasn't perfect (some wide copper tape would have been good) but working with materials at hand it did the job.

Once everything else was attached, the board looked like this. 
After making about 10 of these I managed to get them quite neat. But it was very labour intensive, each one probably took over 3 hours of quite fiddly work. 
And due to the nature of cutting out the boards, each one was slightly different, in where the LEDs went and where the wires were routed.

Many months later, the dawn of my CNC machine, and obviously one of the first things I wanted to have a go at was milling PCBs. I drew up the design in Vectorworks (EagleCAD* is the proper tool) and bought some copper clad board and was very easily able to cut out a simple PCB.
Milled PCBs are different to proper manufactured PCBs, you start with a solid layer of copper and simply mill away 'isolation paths' to create your tracks.

The one on the left is my very first attempt, I just used a cheap V bit that I had and the result was some very rough looking paths, but an entirely functional board.
My second attempt (using a 0.8mm ball nose) was much neater, but after my PCB milling bits arrived from China I was able to cut really neat boards. These are 0.2mm isolation paths, so potentially I can mill some really complex boards with lots of tiny surface mount parts.

Designing for CNC always affects your design. For example I wanted to take advantage of the fact that the copper layer could act as my other battery contact (no more stitching) so that meant the board was flipped and everything was soldered on the back. 

This also meant I had to switch to normal 3mm LEDs and mount them upside down (poking through the board) I originally use smt LEDs to keep the board thin, but the limiting factor is always the battery thickness so this works out fine, and the 3mm leds are brighter.

The boards look really cool now, very neat and I can do cool stuff like engrave labels and my logo. But the main thing that makes these far better than their predecessors is the time they take to produce. Each one probably takes about 20 minutes of milling, because it requires several tool changes. But then only about 10 minutes of soldering and it's finished.

Also each one is identical, which means I can add matching screw holes to my plastic corpse locator parts. rather than the tedious task of lining up and drilling each individual part to match it's specific board.

* Eagle is a program which allows you to draw up circuit diagrams, as well as layout circuit board designs for sending off to have fabricated. With the proper add on you can also create Gcode to send to a CNC machine. It sounds like a fantastic tool, but when I had a go there was a lot to learn and, for such a simple circuit, with mostly through hole components it was just slowing me down.

1 comment:

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