Hello! You are absolutely correct. In our recent project update, we explained the real purpose of using the word "desktop" and of course, we are stressing safety in chemical exposure and also environmental waste!
Getting quick-turn bare PCBs via the web isn't a big issue for me. Costs and delivery times are reasonable for small boards. And I don't want to have to work with or store etching chemicals.
The major stumbling block for me is populating the boards with small surface mount components. It's a hassle packaging, lableing and shipping off components, providing special build instructions, paying for NREs, ect. I'd much rather have a desktop based solution that can apply solder paste, place components and reflow solder so I don't have to farm out the prototype build.
I feel the opposite -- the pain is getting (that is, waiting for the turn-around) time of getting the boards made. Soldering up a board only takes a couple of minutes/hours depending on how complex the board is.
The soldering time is miniscule compared to the turn-around time of getting the PCBs made. Assuming that you're truly prototyping, gerbers to FR4 is clearly the bottleneck, because that's usually measured in weeks. It's true that if I need a prototype board right away I can etch, drill, via and solder it up the same day -- but it'll take all day.
If you're talking about something that tastes more like production, then sure, the biggest pain is assembling the (SMT) boards because it'll take you just as long to etch 100 boards than send them out.
While the 2 week turn around issue still stands, prices for low volume manufacturing have dropped through the floor with companies like OSHPark. $5 per sq inch and you get 3 copies of a full spec 2 layer boards shipped to your door. I have also had boards back in as little as 6 business days, though that's not the norm.
I've done self etched boards, as well as have access to a board router, but the hassle of not having plated vias and holes has pushed me well past the pain threshold. There's certainly still a use for home grown boards and this looks like it takes plenty of pain out, but for personal projects I can wait.
@tenbest: I've done self etched boards, as well as have access to a board router, but the hassle of not having plated vias and holes has pushed me well past the pain threshold.
On the one hand I congratulate these guys for not biting off more than they can chew, as it were -- I'm notorious for over-engineering everything.
On the other hand, I agree with you in that what I really want is somthing that I can connect to my computer -- download the design files for a double-sided through-hole board -- and press the "Go" button -- and for the unit print the layout and drill the holes and etch the board and give me a double-sided board with plated-through holes.
I suspect that the day will come also but my guess is that what we need for that is a 3D printer that can print both metallic (or conducive) material and insulating (non- conductive) material on the same "level". No mess with etching or any of that and you could use the same printer to make a case for your project. Of course, the materials would have to be compatible with soldering which makes the problem more difficult. The thing is that once you have something like that, the possibilities do not stop at two layer boards.
If soumeone built something like that at a reasonable cost, I'd buy it.
If I knew more about material properties and mechanical design, I'd try to build one. As it is my knowlege of material properties is primarily from a university class that was more years ago than I'd care to admit.
Thank you for the kind words, Max! Our first concept of the BreadBox was an all-in-one solution but it turned out to be quite... a project (to say the least). We've decided, while it might not be as elegant, some things cannot be done as well when combined. When the BreadBox pushes out of production, we are releasing an auto driller that identifies through-holes and (well, as the name implies...) auto-drills them.
I think it would be better to bring down the price of mail order one off PCBs through automation. The machine acts sort of like an internet controlled vending machine where the user makes selections that get charged to their credit card, paypal or whatever. The machine would be operated over the internet by the user and mail out the PCBs all automatically. Only periodic maintenance and service would require a Tech.
Awesome project Joshua, congratulations. Let me get this right - your machine prints the PCB as well as etching it? You refer to "Compatible" PCB - is this the pre-coated UV sensitive stuff or something else? And what PCB design packages will it work with? Obviously you could do 2 layers only with this, and no through hole plating? but this would not be a hassle for me (and many other hobbyist level users). I'd be keen to know more, thanks.
My immediate reaction was that it somehow laid down conductive traces. How might that be done?
A conductive ink, perhaps copper particles in some kind of binder?
An "inkjet" that heated copper to a point that, when spat out, it would melt into a trace? (Perhaps making connections between elements of a pre-printed grid, so much less "ink" would be needed?)
Some sort of EDM to cut traces in a similar, but connected, grid?
Do PCBs have to be rigid "boards", or could a flexible wiring harness be embedded in a suitable insulator? That could be laid onto a perf. board for structural support. Just put the through-vias where you know the holes are going to be.
@Perl_geek - The article says the machine etches the board, so I suspect it is standard copper-clad PCB, probably the pre-sensitised type, and the printing process is laying down opaque ink for the traces before exposing it to UV. Or possibly the print head has a UV Laser on it and exposes the PCB where you DON"T want tracks, prior to etching. Joshua has gone quiet, it seems, hope he will tell us more....
@perl_geek: My immediate reaction was that it somehow laid down conductive traces. How might that be done? A conductive ink, perhaps copper particles in some kind of binder?
I thinbk the "Printer" in the name is a bit missleading -- it's more of an etcher -- you transfer the required pattern to the board by hand, then this machine will use/mix the chemicals in the right order / times / amounts along with providing agitation and so forth.
IMHO a better approach for rapid prototyping of PCB would be a mini CNC mill, no chemicals involved. However they are a lot more noisier, and PCB dust would pose a problem. Some sort of vacuuming system would be needed to avoid the later (maybe even plug in your home's vacuum cleaner).
The problem is the plating; for an idea of current commercial solutions, look at LPKF.
We need a better way of making connections between layers for desktop PCB makers to take off. However, I'm still think that for most hobbyists, assembly is a much bigger pain point (so getting a usuable desktop P&P machine + reflow oven is more important)
NASA's Orion Flight Software Production Systems Manager Darrel G. Raines joins Planet Analog Editor Steve Taranovich and Embedded.com Editor Max Maxfield to talk about embedded flight software used in Orion Spacecraft, part of NASA's Mars mission. Live radio show and live chat. Get your questions ready.
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