2011 September 27

4pcb.com sticklers for the $50 multiple-image surcharge

4pcb.com put a hold on my second order from them, asking for an extra $50 (bringing the cost up to $100.30) for the new board, because there were multiple images.

I asked them on the phone what the rule was now for defining multiple images.  Although they did not give an exact algorithm, basically they are looking for separate pieces unconnected by copper traces.  I suspect that they either do a quick look at the board manually or have some very crude program to detect probable repeats.

They are not looking just for exact repeats (which is the rule that Gabriel Elkaim told me they used), but anything that looks like multiple boards. Now I have to decide whether to pay the $50 surcharge, find another vendor, or redesign the board.

For the tiny breakout boards I may be better off with a BatchPCB.com order, at $2.50/sq in + $10 setup. I had 3 (slightly different) copies of the hexmotor 2.3 board, plus 2 each of 3 different breakout board designs for the pressure sensor.

The areas and prices for the boards (not including shipping) are

board dimensions area BatchPCB.com price
pressure 1.3 0.7″ × 1.45″ 1.015 sq in $15.08 for 2
pressure 1.4 1.5″ × 1.0″ 1.5 sq in $17.50 for 2
pressure 1.5 0.475″ × 0.8″ 0.38 sq in $15.00 for 2
hexmotor 2.3 3.95″ × 3.15″ 12.44 sq in $41.11 for 1, $103.32 for 3
combined 7.537″ × 6.737″ 50.78 sq in $136.94 for 1

So if I keep the original order, I’m better off with 4pcb.com pricing, but if I get only 1 motor controller board, I could reduce the price to about $75+shipping (with a new combined board, to avoid the repeated $10 setup).  If I just want the breakout boards, I could do all of them without the hexmotor board as 2 copies of  a combined 1″ × 3.825″ board  for $29.13+shipping.

UPDATE: I decided I want the new features of the hexmotor 2.3 board enough to spend the extra $60 rather than just using the old hexmotor 1.3 board.  When I want tiny boards, though, I’ll try BatchPCB.com, which will be cheaper for boards smaller than about 13 square inches (depending on shipping and how many are ordered).


2011 August 14

Pressure sensor

I’ve been thinking about what other parts I need to buy for the high-school Robotics Club, so that they can finish their underwater vehicle.

Some I’ve known about for a while, but just haven’t gotten it together to buy the (expensive parts).  For example, they will need several IP-68 connectors for the tether power, for the tether CAT-5 cable (see Long USB cable problem solved), for the motors, and for whatever suite of tools they build for this year’s challenge.  I bought a 4-pin Buccaneer standard connector (made by Bulgin)  for the power tether, and am leaning toward 8-pin mini Buccaneer connectors for the motor and tools.  I’ve still  not decided whether to get another 8-pin mini Buccaneer for the Ethernet connection, or to try using their IP-68 ethernet connector.

One that I only just started thinking about is a pressure sensor for determining depth. The challenges for the past 2 years have involved going to a particular depth, so having a depth gauge is a good idea.

Pressure sensors are classified into 4 types: differential, absolute, gauge, and sealed gauge.  In truth they are all differential, measuring the difference in pressure.  The absolute gauges measure the difference to a vacuum chamber, the gauge-pressure sensors measure the difference to atmospheric pressure, and the sealed gauge sensors measure the difference to a sealed chamber that has a known pressure in it (probably around one atmosphere).

If the club members put the pressure sensor sticking through the wall of the dry box, we could use any of the types of pressure sensor, but absolute or sealed gauge would be best, since we don’t know how much the pressure inside the drybox changes as we submerge it.  The sidewalls will flex, so the pressure will go up, but we don’t know how much.

I spent some time today looking for pressure sensors at DigiKey. It looks like absolute pressure sensors are cheaper and easier to find than sealed-gauge, so we’ll go with them.  There are also price variations depending on whether the sensor has temperature compensation, and on whether the output is a low-voltage differential signal or an amplified one ready for input to a microprocessor A/D input.  I’m pretty sure that we need the simplest interface we can afford, so the ones that don’t need external amplifiers are the best bet.

I also spent some time reviewing how much pressure to expect at different depths, so that I could help the club select the appropriate part.  I found an on-line pressure calculator that can convert depth of water to pressure (in PSI, kPa, or atmospheres).  Each meter of depth adds 9.8 kPa (or 1.42 psi).  In a 20′-deep pool,  they could have up to 59.7 kPa, and in a 12m deep pool (like at NASA) they could have up to 117.6 kPa.  Of course, this is just the water pressure that is added to the atmospheric pressure, so the real range they need to cover is 100 kPa to 220kPa.

It looks like Freescale Semiconductor makes some absolute pressure sensors with a 20–250 kPa range (for example, the MPXH6250AC6T1), which is just about right for us.  They run on 5 v and provide a ratiometric output, that we should be able to read to 10 bits of precision, or about 0.25 kPa, which would be a depth resolution of 1 inch. The accuracy of the pressure sensors is only ±1.5% of 250kPA, which is ±3.75kPa, ±15in, or ±38cm.   They get full points if they are within 50cm, so this is accurate enough for us.  The could calibrate to higher accuracy, by lowering the machine at the side of a pool while looking at a ruler or tape measure along the side of the pool and taking measurements.  So, now that I know what is needed, I can have the robotics club try to solve the design problems.

I think I will have to do one more thing for them, though—the pressure sensor is a surface-mount component, so I think that they will need a breakout board for it.  I’ll design a breakout board that has room for some bypass capacitors and an output filter capacitor.  Although surface-mount, the part has 0.05″ pitch leads sticking out, and so should be hand solderable, though it might be worthwhile to get a heat gun and solder paste to try reflow soldering.

Come to think of it, since the pressure sensor will be glued to the side of the drybox, it might be a good idea to mount the 3-axis accelerometer on the same board.  That would reduce the amount of cabling they need to do.  But the ADXL335 chip has the SMD pads underneath the chip, which can’t be easily hand-soldered.  That brings up the question of whether we try soldering with a heat gun or toaster oven, or pay $12 more for the chip already on a breakout board. (The DigiKey breakout board is the same price and a similar design to the LadyAda  breakout board—both are copying the ridiculously overpriced breakout board from Analog Devices.)

I could play around with a few different designs and stick them on my next PC board run—I want to do a revised version of the HexMotor board anyway, and it won’t cost any more to toss in some sensor boards on the same fab run.

2011 August 2

Boards arrived

The hexmotor rev 1.3 boards before cutting them apart.

The printed circuit boards for hexmotor rev1.3 came today from 4pcb.com. I ordered the boards on July 21, so the total turnaround time from order to delivery was only 12 days. No wonder the company is so popular for student projects—low prices and fast service will do that!

The boards looked pretty good, so the first thing I did was to check some crucial dimensions:

  • I put headers into the holes for the connection to the Arduino board and checked that it would plug in.  No problem!
  • I checked that I could spread the pins of the TLE-5206-2S chips to fit the holes where they were supposed to plug in.  No problem!  In fact, it was surprisingly easy to get the right spacing, by using the board itself as a tool for bending the pins.
  • I checked that I could put in both the MTR2 TLE-5206-2 chip and capacitor C5 without conflict (as I’d noticed that the silk screen outlines overlapped only after I’d sent in the order).  This also turned out not to be a problem
  • I checked that the mounting holes on the board lined up with those on the Arduino.  Only 2 out of 3 do.  What is going on???I got the hole placement from the Adafruit library for Eagle, and it has 3 holes, but they are not in the same places as the Arduino board.  It turns out that two of the holes correspond to holes on the Arduino board, and two to holes on the Arduino Mega board, which has holes in different locations.  Neither pair corresponds to the holes on the  Adafruit motor shield, which has only 2 diagonally opposite holes, the two holes that are actually in common between the Arduino and the Arduino Mega footprints.  For the next revision of the boards, I have to decide whether to use the 3-hole design of this board, or to go with the pair of diagonally opposite holes.  Or put in 4 holes, so that either Arduino or Arduino Mega can be securely attached with 3 screws. I think that there is room for the fourth hole, if I move one of the electrolytic capacitors.
  • I also did some continuity checks on the power lines.  The power and ground lines connect to the right pins on the TLE-5206-2 footprints, and they aren’t shorted.  The 6.25v and 5v lines also seem fine.
  • I had to make some Eagle library components for the screw terminal blocks I was using, and they seem to be fine, except for two little problems: I put a silkscreen mark for the bump on the side of the 5mm block on the wrong side, and the holes specified by the manufacturer seem a bit too big for the pins.  I’ll specify a smaller drill hole (closer to the spec for the pin size) in the next revision.  Neither of these little problems will interfere with functionality.
  • I checked out the Sparkfun header pattern, with the slightly staggered holes to hold the headers while soldering.  The holes must be a bit bigger than Sparkfun gets from their manufacturer, or my headers smaller, because the headers were not held by the staggered holes.  They fit fine, but the holes are loose enough that they aren’t held.

Tonight, I’ll fix up my Eagle library to have a 4-hole Arduino template and to have a better 5mm screw terminal component.

Here's a 12" board shear that costs $379 from Circuit Specialists.

Tomorrow I’ll go up to campus and see if I can cut the boards apart with the board shears.

I took a look at  printed circuit board shears on the web (you need to include “printed circuit” if you search, or you get book-binding equipment), and they range in price from $125 to $500, depending on size and quality.  I don’t plan to buy one for myself, but it seems like the sort of low-price, special-purpose tool that a place like Makers Factory ought to get.

2011 July 31

More design errors in hexmotor rev1.3

I should have known better than to send the PC board to fab before I wrote the software.  That’s precisely the sort of optimistic thinking I chide my students for.  There are all sorts of design errors that can be uncovered when you work out the details of how to use the hardware.

In my case, the motor functionality of the board all looks ok (so far), but the extra servo functionality is somewhat messed up, because I had not really understood how servos are controlled and how the Arduino servo library uses pins.  I “knew” that servos used pulse width to control position, but I had not bothered to look into the details or think about exactly what that meant—I just assumed that you had to use the PWM pins for the purpose.  Wrong!  If I’d ever actually used a servo with the Arduino, I would have known better.

Servo control is based on the actual on-time of the pulses, not the ratio of on-time to off-time (as is the case for controlling brushed DC motors).  You do have to give up one of the timers used for PWM in order to control the pulse width, but you can provide the pulses on any output pin.  The Arduino Servo documentation clearly says

The Servo library supports up to 12 motors on most Arduino boards and 48 on the Arduino Mega. On boards other than the Mega, use of the library disables analogWrite() (PWM) functionality on pins 9 and 10, whether or not there is a Servo on those pins. On the Mega, up to 12 servos can be used without interfering with PWM functionality; use of 12 to 23 motors will disable PWM on pins 11 and 12.

So putting servo control on the PWM pins is precisely the wrong choice of pins for maximum flexibility.  The hexmotor rev1.3 board has more or less the capabilities I thought it had (I can do up to 6 servos or up to 6 motors, and I can trade off servos for PWM control of motors, though I always have to give up PWM control of motors 4 and 5 to get any servos).  The initial application of the hexmotor board called for 4 fully PWM-controlled motors and 2 extra controls that could be motors or servos.  We can still do that, though we have a choice of 2 PWM-controlled motors or 2 servos and 2 forward/backward/brake (not PWM control), and can’t mix a servo with a 5th PWM-control motor.

But there is no reason to limit the board the way I did.  With slightly different wiring I could have simultaneously allowed 4 PWM-controlled motors, 2 forward/backward/brake motors, and 5 servos, with the main limitation being the power to the servos (due to the 1.5A limit of the switching regulator).  Three extra servo outputs could be really handy!

I also did not think about making the board compatible with the Arduino Mega board.  The current design does not use the Arduino Mega’s extra pins, which is no big deal, but it also blocks access to those pins, which could be a problem.  Furthermore, I did not look at what pins the Arduino Mega provides PWM on, nor which it gives up for the Servo library.

Incidentally, I was frustrated in looking on the Arduino site for the pin mapping of the Arduino Mega boards—they’d hidden that essential information behind a password (for no discernible reason).  I finally found the Mega pinout info on the forums, where someone frustrated by the inaccessibility of the pin mapping page had re-created it from other documentation.  It turns out that all the digital pins 2 through 13 can be used for PWM on the Mega, so any redesign I do on the board would have at least as much functionality on the Mega as on the standard Arduino.  I will have to be careful to put in conditionals for the pins in the software, though, as some of the pins are mapped from different ports on the Mega.

Redesigning the board to pass through the Arduino Mega pins would be a pain, as the pins take up three sides of the 1.825″×4″ footprint of the Mega board, and the remaining side is where the USB and power connectors are, so through-hole components can’t be mounted there.  I don’t think I can fit in all the TLE-5206-2 chips and screw terminals for the 12v power and motors and stay below the Eagle 8cm×10cm board size limit if I have to put in connectors for all the Arduino Mega pins.

I won’t be able to stack boards above the motor board anyway, as the electrolytic capacitors I’ve designed in to clean up the power are very tall (2cm), as are the TLE-2506-2 chips: particularly if I put on heatsinks.  I’ve bought a strip of 1/8″ thick, 3/4″ wide aluminum bar stock for a heatsink—I plan to drill 6 holes in it to bolt the TLE-5206-2 chips to.  It won’t matter if the bar connects the chips electrically, as they all have a common ground connection anyway.

I think that I’ll populate one rev 1.3 board with only 4 TLE-5206-2 chips, the minimum for the robotics club to be able to experiment with their underwater vehicle, and see how it works before making a new set of boards with full functionality.

So, for rev 2.1 I’m definitely going to change the way that the servo outputs are wired and make sure the software can work with the Arduino Mega boards, but I won’t be trying to connect to the Arduino Mega’s other pins. (Hmmm—I just had an idea for how I could pack everything in, with a massive rearrangement of components.  I might try that as separate branch of the design, to see whether it really is feasible.)

2011 July 26

Time to start doing software

The PC board for the hexmotor H-bridge is ordered and supposedly going to arrive soon, and I’ve ordered all the components from Digi-Key. The total coast of the project is looking like about $180 (including the PC board and shipping) for 2 fully populated boards (not counting an enormous amount of my time). I’ve already started designing a revised board (rev 2.0) that will be designed around the TLE-5206-2 from the beginning, and will have more versatility. I’m thinking that I’ll populate one rev 1.3 board for testing, finalize the rev 2.0 design, and send it out for fab, rather than populating a second rev 1.3 board.

Here is a preview of what my panel of 4 boards should look like.

In addition to the 6 TLE-5206-2 H-bridges, both boards have 74HC594 serial-to-parallel converters for control signals and 74HC86 XOR gates. The serial-to-parallel conversion is similar to that of the Adafruit Industries motor shield (which I have, but which does not have enough current capacity as it uses L293D H-bridges, which only support 0.6A per channel, and I need at least 2.5A per channel).

Copying the choices on the Adafruit board, I made the pin mapping LATCH=Arduino pin 12, DATA=Arduino pin 8, CLOCK=Arduino pin 4. I was wondering at first why they did not use the built-in SPI interface (which would simplify the programming of the serial output), but then realized that the output bit of the SPI interface (MOSI=pin 11) is also OC2A, one of the PWM outputs. Since there are only 6 PWM outputs (one per motor), and the serial interface does not need to be very fast, using software control of other pins is a good idea.

I’ve also brought out all the PWM signals to 3-wire servo connections, so that I can use each PWM signal as either a servo control or a motor speed control. All the connections to the Arduino digital pins are jumpered, so I can reconfigure the board if needed. For example, if I just want forward/backward/brake control of a motor, without speed control, I can rewire the input that would normally be to a PWM bit to be to a different digital pin, and free up that PWM bit for servo control.

On the hexmotor rev 2.0 board I added another 74HC594 chip (in series) so that I have 16 control bits available. Six of them are used for motor control, as on the rev 1.3 board. Another 6 are brought out to header pins adjacent to the speed control pins, so that those pins can be jumpered either to the Arduino PWM pins or to the shift register outputs, allowing 6 motors and 6 servos to be controlled by the board, as long as only 6 continuous values are needed, and the servos don’t exceed the 1.5A capacity of the switching regulator. The remaining 4 of the 16 parallel bits of the rev 2.0 will be brought out to individual header pins, so that they can be used as arbitrary digital outputs. (Also, the hexmotor 2.0 board will have an LED to indicate that 5v power is properly being provided—if the board is used as intended, with the Arduino powered from the switching regulator on the hexmotor board, this tests that all the power connections are made and the Arduino board plugged in.

I will have to start writing software for the hexmotor board soon. I’ll probably base some of the software on the Adafruit AFMotor package, to make it easier for the robotics club to switch between the Adafruit motor shield and the hexmotor board, but there will be some important differences. Since the hexmotor board has several jumpers that can customize it, but no way for the Arduino to read that configuration, I need an easy way to tell the software how the board is configured. I want software that will work with either revision of the hexmotor board. Since the rev 2.0 board has more possibilities for configuration than the rev 1.3 board (thanks to the 8 extra output bits), I’ll design the software for that, making sure that the rev 1.3 board is covered as a special case.

I’m going to have to dive into both the ATMega328 data sheet and the Arduino code to find out how to get access to all 6 PWM signals.  I already know that the Arduino initialization messes with the PWM frequencies, so the AFMotor.h control for the PWM frequencies doesn’t work.  It may turn out that using OC1A and OC2A (which the Adafruit board does not use, but which I use for motors 4 and 5) interacts in some unpleasant way with other Arduino functions.  I may have to put up with some constraints on PWM frequency, as I want to retain clock and analog input capabilities.

2011 July 23

Possibly salvage the boards

My son and I were looking together about whether we could salvage the board design by using the TLE-5206-2 parts that are available.

The pinout is identical, but the functionality is different.

In1 In2 5205 out1/out2 5206 out1/out2
0 0 1/0 0/0
0 1 0/1 0/1
1 0 0/0 1/0
1 1 Z/Z 1/1

The arrangements of signals that I have available to jumper to were S, PWM, and S+PWM.  The easy jumper arrangements I had were (IN1=S, IN2=PWM) and (IN1=PWM, IN2=S+PWM), which with the TLE-5205 were supposed to give me lock anti-phase drive and sign-magnitude drive.

With the 5206, lock anti-phase would require (IN1=PWM, IN2=not PWM), which I don’t have available, but the jumper setting (IN1=S, IN2=PWM) now almost makes sense as active collapse (run/brake) mode (except that it is not quite sign magnitude, since the interpretation of the pulse width is flipped depending which way the motor is supposed to turn).  The other jumper setting makes no sense.

So now I have choice:

  1. Populate a board with TLE-5206 chips and have only the run/brake mode (I could solder in jumpers, since there are no choices).  I could also omit the now-useless OR gates.
  2. Design a new board with the TLE-5206 chips in mind, with jumpering between two modes:
    • (IN1=S, IN2=S xor PWM)   run/brake with consistent magnitude interpretation
    • (IN1=PWM, IN2=S xor PWM)  lock anti-phase if S=1, brake if S=0

Wait a second!  I don’t need a new board for that! If I replace the 74HC32 quad nor-gate with a 74HC86 quad Xor, then the 5-pin headers will be


I can solder the IN2 pin to S xor PWM, and just have a 3-pin header to connect IN1 to either S (for run/brake) or PWM (for lock anti-phase). The labeling on the silk screen will be wrong, but the board will be fully usable!

The interpretation of the pulse width modulation if  IN1 is set to PWM is that 0 means always on and 255 means always braking, which is kind of weird, but easily compensated for in the software. S determines the direction the motor turns.

If IN1 is set to S, then S is interpreted as RUN if it is high, STOP if it is low, and PWM gives the direction and magnitude when running (with 0 being full on in one direction and 255 being full on in the opposite direction).  PWM should probably be set to constant 0 when braking.

I think the board can be saved, and still have all the functions we needed, though we switched from sign-magnitude to active collapse as one of the modes.  The next revision of the board (if I need to make more) would fix the silk screen and replace the 5-pin header with a 3-pin header for each chip.

H-bridge not available

I’ll be getting a decorative but useless PC board next week.  It is a good thing it only cost me $50.

It turns out that the H-bridge that was recommended to me, Infineon’s TLE-5205, is made of unobtanium.  I thought I had checked Digi-Key’s stock before starting my design, but I must have mistyped the part number, as Digi-Key customer service just called me to say that they haven’t had any since Sept 2010 and don’t expect any in the next 18 weeks.  They do have a few  TLE-5206-2 still in stock, probably because it is a less useful part, not having the Hi-Z output state. I must have checked that part instead of the TLE-5205-2.  Probably no other distributor has any TLE-5205-2’s either, if Infineon has been unable to make any since last September.

I didn’t know that Digi-Key had customer service reps working at 8p.m. on a Saturday night—it is good to know that a supplier cares enough to keep engineer hours.

In any event, I’m going to have to completely redesign the board. The TLE-5205 is unavailable even in the surface mount packages, so I can’t just change packages.  I’ll have to find and use a different H-bridge, which will be a major pain, as the TLE-5205 came close to being ideal for this application. I suspect that since the 5206 is still available, that the problem might be with the freewheeling diodes.  Since the 5206 always has either the high-side or low-side on, it doesn’t need Schottky freewheeling diodes.  Unfortunately, most of the other H-bridges I’ve looked at expect external diodes—the TLE-5205 was attractive because it had built-in diodes, saving a lot of board space.

2011 July 21

Board panelized and ordered

I used Gerbmerge today to make a larger board out of four of my little boards, since 4 of the maximum-size Eagle freeware boards (8cm × 10cm) will fit in the 60 sq-in area limit of the $33 board from 4pcb.com’s student program.

Here is a preview of what my panel of 4 boards should look like.

It turned out to be much more difficult than I expect to install Gerbmerge.

First I had to install the SimpleParse package for Python.  That was straightforward, once I realized that the big “Looking for the latest version? Download SimpleParse-2.0.0.zip (301.5 KB) ” button on http://sourceforge.net/projects/simpleparse/files/ actually downloaded an old version, and you had to click through the directories to find version 2.1.1.a2, which was needed to get the sublibraries.  Running setup.py from the downloaded directory installed SimpleParse correctly.

Then I downloaded the gerbmerge-1.8 directory and tried installing it.  That was not so much fun, as the setup.py file was badly written.

  • First, I had to edit it to remove the MS-DOS extraneous carriage returns, which Python 2.7 does not seem to like on a Mac—that is no big deal.
  • Second, it failed because it was looking for distutils.sysconfig.get_config_var('LIBPYTHON'), which is a configuration variable that does not exist on my system.  I eventually figured out that what it should have been doing there is distutils.sysconfig.get_python_lib() and got setup.py to run.
  • Third, I still could not get gerbmerge to run, because setup.py put it in the wrong place.  I had to edit 
    fid.write( \
    python %s/site-packages/gerbmerge/gerbmerge.py $*
    """ % DestLib)

    fid.write( \
    python %s/gerbmerge.py $*
    """ % DestDir)

    and remove os.path.walk(os.path.join(DestLib, 'site-packages/gerbmerge'), fixperms, 1)

After all that fussing, I finally got Gerbmerge to run without crashing.  I then had to put together a configuration file to explain how I wanted the panelization job done.  The configuration file is not intuitive, but it is well-documented with an excellent sample to modify.

The statistics reported by Gerbmerge did alert me to one minor problem: the vias used by the auto-router used a different size hole from the ones I had placed by hand.  I figured out how to change the auto-router via size (it grabs the smallest legal size from the design-rule checker), ripped up the auto-routed stuff, and rerouted it.  That introduced some design rule violations, where newly placed vias were overlapped by some of the silkscreen, but I fixed that my manually moving the offending vias and rerouting to them.

I checked the combined board both with FreeDFM from 4pcb.com and BatchPCB, and both accepted it with no complaints.  BatchPCB charges by the square inch, so it would cost $138.57 for the 4-up board from them, more than the $124 for the boards already properly cut apart.

I ordered one of the 4-up boards from 4pcb.com for $33 plus shipping, for a total of about $50.  I only found out afterwards that they have a $50 surcharge if you have multiple copies of the same design on the board.  I hope that they don’t charge me that surcharge!  If they ask, I’ll cancel the order and redo with 4 slightly different designs (maybe customizing the silkscreen for the robotics club).

In fact, I just realized that I could probably define a few new “customization” layers in Eagle, and automatically generate 4 slightly different designs from a single .brd file.  If I have to go that route, I will, and I’ll certainly not make the mistake of sending 4 identical designs to 4pcb.com.  If they want to put in arbitrary rules for their student designs, I’ll play rule lawyer with them.

More design feedback

My friend, Steve, who has done a lot of PC board design, looked at my design and provided some detailed feedback and some questions for me.

First, he noticed that one of my ICs did not have a bypass capacitor, and that one of the other bypass capacitors was badly routed.  I’d been worried about that myself, so having it be his first comment told me I really had to fix it.

He also suggested that all the logic GND signals have only a single point of contact with the motor GND signal, to avoid ground loops.  I’d not thought about ground loops, and realized that I had a redundant contact make a ground loop that ran through the Arduino board!  I removed the extra ground routing and re-routed the logic ground wires to run to connect to the end of the motor ground so that they were as separated as possible from the noise injected by the motors.

He asked me several questions about heat dissipation, also, but I was ready for those.  The TLE-5205 chips I’m using have only 400 milli-ohms of on-resistance (for high and low legs added), so at 2.5A (where I expect to use them) they should be dissipating 1W.  With a junction-to-ambient thermal resistance of 65ºK/W, I should see a temperature rise of no more than 65º, up to 90ºC.  That is pretty hot, but well below the 150ºC limit.  If I add a chunk of aluminum as a heat sink, the temperature rise should be much less.

Steve also noticed a problem with the 74*32 and 74*594 parts on the board.  One was given as 74HCT32 and the other as 74LS594.  He recommended that both be 74HC series, which is really what I intended, but the 74xx-us Eagle library had not included that technology for those parts.  I went into the library and added the HC and HCT technologies (just a button click!), so that the parts are now properly labeled.

My other friend, Gabriel, suggested that if I went with the $33 4pcb.com board, I could perhaps put multiple boards on the panel and cut them apart with board shears at work.  I’ve never seen board shears, but I understand that the Jack Baskin School of Engineer has some that I could use.  I picture them as looking like a heavy-duty paper guillotine, making one cut across the board at right angles to the edge.  (Gabriel says that is indeed what it looks like.)

Of course, since I’m at the maximum design size (8cm×10cm) for the freeware version of Eagle, I’ll have to find a tool to panelize the design. Gabriel suggested Gerbtool to do the panelizing (the same tool that Steve was using to look at the designs, and the one that they teach students to use in computer engineering and electrical engineering courses), but that is a Windows-only, license-fee tool. I wanted to do this task with free tools as much as possible (not only because I’m cheap, but so that other hobbyists could try the same things), and I have a strong aversion to Windows.

I looked around for a free tool (now that I knew that the keywords were “Gerber panelization”) and found GerbMerge, which is free, open-source software written in pure Python 2.4, which should be installable on any Mac OS X, Linux, or Windows machine.  I’ll try downloading it tomorrow and see whether 4pcb.com will accept the output. Since my design is only 8cm×10cm, I could put 4 boards down in 17cm×21cm, which at 55.34 sq-in is still under their 60 sq-in limit.

If I can get 4 boards for $33+shipping from a high-quality fab like 4pcb.com, I’ll be happy.  At some later date, I’ll probably release the design through BatchPCB, which would allow others to make copies for about $31 each, but probably not until I’ve tested the board myself and gotten the robotics club to solder one up successfully.  I need to make up a bill of materials for populating the board and put in an order with Digi-Key.  The expensive parts are the switching regulator and the H-bridges, which will come to about $70, I think.  I’ll probably buy a set of parts for myself, but ask Infineon and TI if they will donate samples for the high-school robotics club.  I’ll be happy if we come out of this project with two fully populated working boards for under $200 in parts (counting my time as freely donated volunteer time).

2011 July 19

More on PC boards

I got back the results of the free check of the design rules from FreeDFM.com that I mentioned in my earlier post, and there are a lot of problems.

First, the sfe-gerb274x.cam script from SparkFun included the Dimension layer in the top copper, but this generates traces that are far too thin (0.1 mil) to be made.  The outline of the board does not belong on this layer.

Second, the Adafruit component for the Arduino, that labels the Arduino pins used 3 mil strokes, but the minimum stroke width for 4pcb.com’s silk screens is 5 mils, so there were 4103 violations.

I fixed the script that generated the top copper file so that it didn’t include the Dimension layer, and went through some of the libraries fixing the fonts so that the 0.04″ high letters has a stroke/height ratio of 13% and the 0.05″ high letters had a stroke/height ratio 10%, meeting the minimum silkscreen requirements. I resubmitted the design to FreeDFM and got

No DFM problems were found on your board!

Show Stoppers
We Found None!
Problems Automatically Fixed by FreeDFM
We Found None!

They also provide some nice pictures of the layers as pdf files, so maybe I don’t need a Gerber file viewer after all (though the separate PDF files don’t give me any clues about possible misalignment).

I’ve not decided for certain whether I’ll go with 4pcb.com for my fabrication, but the fact that I was able pass their design rule checks (and the positive recommendation for them that I got from someone who supervises a lot of student PC board designs) is encouraging. The minimum order of $132 (which would give me 5 copies of the board) is a little daunting for a first attempt, as I’m sure I messed up something.

Yep, I sure did. In a comment on my earlier post Mylène gave me a pointer to a trace width calculator, which I used to figure out whether I had made my ground line fat enough.  The answer is “No!” If I use the cheapest fab lines, I get 1oz/ft2 of copper, which the calculator estimates would heat up 40ºC in the most constricted spot on my board.  So I guess I have to push things around until there is enough room for another ¼” of wire there.  Good to catch that now, rather than after fab!

Advanced Circuits does have a cheaper “bare bones” option, but it does not include a solder mask.  I don’t think I want to try soldering even 0.1″ spaced pads without a solder mask, as I’m clumsy enough to have trouble with solder bridges even when there is a mask.

I also looked at Olimex, which claims very low prices (30€ a board for 1–4 boards), but I was turned off somewhat by the low-quality of their web site and the big announcement:

Note: we are in summer vacation 1-31 of August.
ALL PCB files sent after July 26th will be proceed in September.

I didn’t do it justice here: the announcement fills the screen on their site.  Since I want to work on this primarily in August, I’m not willing to take a chance on their being shut down for the month when I need the boards.

Olimex does take Eagle board files directly, doing their own conversion to Gerber and drill files.  This could be a nice advantage for someone who doesn’t want to bother with the Gerber files.  Now that I have a script that does the right thing, though, it should not take me much effort to do the conversions myself, so this advantage is small.

Perhaps more important is that they release their design rules as Eagle dru files, so you can do your checking as you do your layout.  I downloaded both their rule sets (the 8-mil and the 10-mil) and found that my design fails both.  Again, the problem is with silkscreen stuff, but not the line thickness—the silkscreen outlines of some of the parts I use comes too close to the solder masks for them.  I had a few problems with that even using the default design rules, but I fixed those by editing the package outlines.  The Olimex rules require an even larger clearance, and there are too many different drawings involved, so I’m not willing to take the time to tweak everything to fit Olimex’s fussy rules, despite the low price.

Custom PCB offers low prices and takes Eagle files (or Gerber files, of course).  I think I could get 4 boards for $90 from them, including shipping from Malaysia, but I’m still waiting for the official quote. I think I may fail their design-rule check, though, as they specify a minimum of 6mils for silkscreen lines on their design-rule page.  I’d have to redo a lot of lines to meet that spec!  And I’d have to write (or find somewhere) a set of Eagle design rules that match their requirements, since they have slow turnaround on checking for manufacturability (a day).  They sent e-mail saying

“We have reviewed your design and it looks good for production.  Total cost for 4pcs with Soldermaks & Silkscreen is USD 72.00 + USD 15.50 shipping to USA.”

If they are willing to accept 5 mil silkscreen instead of 6mil, this may be the way to go!  I’ve sent them an e-mail query about their design review—whether they neglected to check the silkscreen or if their minimum acceptable line width has changed.

PCBExpress has a minimum price of $390 (for 2 boards this size).

PCB unlimited has a minimum of $230 (which would get 2 boards) for the “quickturn” pricing and $260–280 for their overseas fab (which would get 1–10 boards).

PCB Universe has $127 (including shipping) for a 4-board lot up to $229 for 10 boards (beyond that number, their standard pricing is supposedly cheaper).  They have 5mil minimum space and lines, which my design easily meets.  Their pricing is similar to 4pcb.com, but without the service of the free design-rule check.

Prototype PCB quoted me $229 for 3 boards.


Bottomline:  If CustomPCB can handle the 5mil lines on the silkscreen, then I think I’ll give them a try.  Otherwise I’ll probably go with 4pcb.com

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