Tuesday, July 29, 2014

OFBC: PCB Fabrication

Note: This is part of the Project Write-up for OFBC: One Fluorescent Beer Coaster

From Protoboard to PCB

The next step along the path was to turn a gawky mess of a protoboard into an elegant example of good design.  This step took a lot less time than I thought it would thanks to Fritzing.  Billed as "Electronics Made Easy", I installed and got up to speed in under an hour.  Conversations with my compatriots helped me tweak and massage the design to our satisfaction.  The end result is a 2" (58mm) PCB for through-hole components.  This will secure the buttons, driver and LED while connecting to the battery.  The experienced among you are probably thinking how absurdly large that it.  It could be a lot smaller, but I consider it acceptable for a first run.  As with other projects, the latest version of the fritzing file will be available on github.

First Run

If I had to pick one part of this project that made me more uncomfortable than any other, it would be the PCB fabrication steps.  I took chemistry in High School and College.  I know the basics.  However, I don't know enough to do it confidently.  I took my queues from MAKE's excellent video tutorial, acquired chemicals at Frys, harvested glass from a recently disabled printer/scanner, and printed transparencies at FedEx Kinkos.  My exposure light was a 26W CFL in a desk lamp.  My red light was a red LED straddling a button cell.

Sneak peek at the Shell prototype

I removed the board from the developer too early or exposed it to too much light. This caused a large region of copper to not develop. There is no way to align and cut a ton of these after the fact. The PDFs exported from Fritzing come out one per page. This means they need to be done one at a time unless you have the skill to post-process the PDF into multiples per page. I pre-cut the PCB's during subsequent runs. My table saw made short work of the big board, and the pre-sensitized copper has a sticker over it that allowed me to cut the board to pieces without compromising its ability to accept an image.


Once the etching was complete, I drilled out the traces.  The prototype board was drilled using a 1/16" bit.  This was way too big.  Out of all the bits I tried, normall through-hole components worked great with a 1/32".  A 1/16" bit was required for the MOSFET, however.  The best set I found was one for the Dremel.

Modern Silk Screening ain't got nuthin' on Sharpies

The only part of the process that ended up being perilous was the disposal of the ferric chloride.  The leftovers are back in the bottle.  I'll take them to the waste disposal place soon.  My driveway has a nice big rust spot on it from where I washed off the etchant.  How am I going to explain that to the HOA?  Ultimately, the problems with Ferric Chloride lead me to a different etchant entirely: Cupric Chloride.  See below.

Production Run 1

With the test run experience in hand, we were set to make an attempt at our first full run.  I chopped the boards on a table saw first.  This was a stunning success.  I also redesigned the PCB to include a slide switch to kill the circuit.  This allows long-term storage as a shifting bag or box won't depress the pressure switches and drain the battery.  You might see on the random design shots how we were planning on mounting the LED to the lid.  This changed before the final production PCB run, and we moved all traces outward to make room in the center of the PCB for the LED module on heatsink.  I also added a copper pad in the center to maximize heat transfer.  Some thermal paste will seal the deal.

The exposure took place in the half bathroom.  With access to water and no exterior windows, it was perfectly suited to etching.  Our supplies were:

  1. Tape, transparencies and pane of glass.  The circuit image is taped to the glass in a double-thick layer.
  2. Positive Developer mixed 10 to 1 in a glass pyrex.  When in doubt, use pyrex to ensure things won't melt through the container.
  3. Desk lamp with a sifficiently bright CFL bulb.
And our steps were:

  1. In darkness, peel off protective layer from light-sensitive copper clad board.
  2. Position the board over the top of your image and tape down.
  3. Flip the glass pane over and double-check the board is positioned correctly.
  4. Expose for 8 minutes using the lamp.
  5. In darkness, remove the board from the glass, and place it in the positive developer.
  6. Swirl the PCB in the solution until the image appears.  If your developer is sufficiently diluted, longer development times will be experienced.  It is better to over-develop and start to lose the image than it is to under-develop and end up with no traces at all.
  7. Wash off the board when it is sufficiently developed,

Final Exposure Workstation (The Guest Bathroom)

After exposure, good boards were placed into the etchant.  The Ferric Chloride was a great big mess.  It was hard to see how the process was coming without fully removing the board.  In addition, it needs to be heated to be truly effective.  Las Vegas has an ambient temperature of 100F/ 38C, and it still took 30 minutes per board.  You can see the etched boards below.  Before soldering, the etch-resist is removed via acetone.

Finished Product on the Plate

Great Success!

Production Run 2

With DEF CON a week away, we didn't have enough boards to complete our goal yet of nine complete lights.  We met for what we thought was our last etching party.  Much like the previous time, we decided to expose and etch using Ferric Chloride.  These boards looked great.  It was obvious we were starting to figure out how to do this effectively.  Unfortunately, we also forgot to check the boards as they were produced.  All 3 good boards were mirror images of what they should have been.  DEF CON loomed large, and we went with the more radical solution: switch etchants and try again.

The new etchant relied on Cuperic Chloride.  Once again, I turned to Instructables for a helpful tutorial.  The key ingredients were muriatic acid and hydrogen peroxide.  As the link shows, the acid and hydrogen peroxide oxidize the copper to form CuCl.  This in turn oxidizes to form 2CuCl by stealing copper from the PCB.  What's better, it needs an acid refresh much less often, and it is completely reusable.  A bubbler or aggressive mixing causes oxygen to oxidize with the 2CuCl and start the cycle again.  We obtained new PCBs (see my rant about Fry's below) and went to town.  We ended up with the 9 boards we needed; we began assembly in earnest.

Lessons Learned

The first board we did had the light placed too close (1-2 inches).  Also, the positive developer was extremely strong.  This caused all of the etch-resistant coating to wash away.  A little more water and moving the light 6-8 inches solved that problem.  When we were doing it right, we waited for the image to appear and then become crisp.  It is extremely difficult to tell in the dark if the image is still cloudy or not.  When in doubt, dilute your developer and leave the boards in there longer.

As with my woodworking posts, the matra is, "Measure Twice, Cut Once."  After every critical step, we had one person check another's work.  This saved us time and again from poorly aligned boards, undrilled holes and bad decisions at the bench.  It didn't save us from all screw-ups (a full crop of mirrored boards), but it saved us other embarrassments.  It also exposed every team member to each point in the process.  In total, five people participated in the manufacture of these boards.  Most have projects lined up that take advantage of things learned along the way.

The boards themselves were a problem, and they highlighted a weakness in the supply chain.  All copper obtained from Fry's failed at least a third of the time.  Online, the consensus was that the boards were old or improperly handled.  The positive developer was much stronger due to being partially evaporated.  The buttons we obtained were stiff and of differing quality that those used in prototypes.  All in all, I would recommend avoiding Fry's if you can help it.  They might have enough materials to get you going, but Amazon or similar suppliers can get you what you need fast enough that it makes no difference.