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The PCB Prototyper: more than just a PCB router
The PCB Prototyper is a compact unit that easily fits in a spare corner of a workbench or lab table, and in addition to making high precision printed circuit boards (PCBs), it is able to perform a wide variety of other tasks. Combining a low price with high application versatility, the PCB Prototyper is an attractive investment even for users who are not interested in making their own PCBs.
A fully automated machine
Many companies and institutions find it difficult to justify the purchase of a PCB router, since they do not generate enough new designs to recover the relatively high cost of this investment. The PCB Prototyper is designed to meet the needs of these users. Priced much lower than other currently available PCB routers and featuring a modular architecture for both the hardware and the software, this machine can also be used for other jobs in a lab or workshop that would otherwise be outsourced.
Of course, the PCB Prototyper is primarily conceived as a full-fledged PCB router that enables users to make their own PCBs with extremely high precision. Routing isolation tracks 100 µm wide and drilling 0.2-mm holes are well within the capabilities of the PCB Prototyper.
A machine tailored to your needs
As with many devices nowadays, most of the cleverness of the PCB Prototyper is embedded in its software. The machine comes with a virtual software container called ColiBri. This container houses all of the software modules for specific tasks. The standard PCB Prototyper includes the PCB software module, which provides all the capabilities and features users need to make PCBs. Depending on their needs, users can subsequently purchase additional modules, write their own modules, or make use of free software to be made available by user groups. In this way, users can assemble a library of software modules that transform the standard PCB Prototyper into a machine optimally tailored to needs of the lab or shop where it is used. ColiBri and other software supplied by Colinbus is designed to conform to the Windows 7 Office Fluent user interface, which makes using the packages intuitive.
Making your own PCBs has its advantages. After completing the design, you can have a board ready for assembly within a few minutes, or at most within a few hours. Additionally, you can use the same machine to make a 3D prototype of the enclosure, perform visual image analysis, or test the operation of the circuit on the board by probing it with extreme precision. The PCB Prototyper dramatically reduces time to market, so its investment cost can be recovered more quickly than with a machine limited to making PCBs.
- Modular architecture
Both the machine and the software have a modular architecture, which makes the PCB Prototyper extremely versatile and allows it to be used for a wide variety of tasks. The work table of the machine can be replaced by other tables, such as various vacuum tables, a T-slot table, a screw vice, or a tailor-made jig. The engraving module of the multifunctional head (see photo above right) can easily be pivoted aside or removed. Fitting a camera, dispenser, test probes or other accessories is very easy. The standard machine is equipped with air feed and discharge lines, compressed air, a USB port on the Z axis and dust extraction.
- Powerful new 3D controller
The PCB Prototyper is equipped with the very latest Colinbus 3D controller. This is the first controller that is able to perform all computation and communication tasks fully embedded, but it can also offload tasks to the connected PC if desired. This innovative technology opens up unprecedented possibilities. Just like controller in the more expensive LaboFlex machines, this controller is suitable for 3D modelling as well as PCB routing, which is still a unique feature.
- Zero backlash
Quality milling machines are driven by precision leadscrews, but this is not good enough for milling faultless PCBs. These leadscrews have a small amount of play (backlash) in the micrometre range, which is unacceptable for milling FP circuit boards. For this reason, the drive screws of the PCB Prototyper are equipped with special anti-backlash nuts.
- Interchangeable work table
The standard PCB Prototyper is fitted with a work table having a single T slot in the middle. This is ideal for routing double-sided PCBs, but it is not especially suitable for securing other types of material, so the machine is designed to allow other types of work table to be fitted. The optional accessory packages for the PCB Prototyper include a vacuum grid table, a hole matrix table, a T slot table and a small bench vice. User-built tables or jigs may also be fitted for special applications.
- Milling depth adjustment with micron accuracy
Accurate depth adjustment is important in the engraving of fine letters, and it is indispensable in milling printed circuit boards. For perfect results, the milling cutter should follow the surface of the material, and the milling depth must be adjustable at the micron level.The PCB Prototyper has a unique engraving module with micrometer adjustment. This module also has an integrated cyclone chamber for dust extraction via the engraving module guide.
- 40,000-rpm, high-precision spindle motor
For routing fine tracks or milling very delicate objects, it is essential to have a machine with an extremely precise spindle motor. The spindle motor of the PCB Prototyper is integrated into the multifunctional head. Tool changing is fast and easy thanks to the combination of a handy tool locking knob and the pivoting engraving module.
- The best software on the market
ColiBri, the software environment that holds all of the software modules for the PCB Prototyper, is a unique new concept. It is the ideal way to allow the machine to be adapted to the specific wishes of individual users, especially because it enables users to develop their own software as necessary and allows user groups to be established to share software modules. ColiBri organises and manages all of the software and ensures that the right module is launched when a file is opened. The PCB Prototyper is supplied with ColiBri and the PCB software module as standard. For more information on the PCB software module, see "Software" section.
Specifications Elektor PCB Prototyper
Working area: X 220/ Y 190/ Z 40 mm
Clamping area: X 220/ Y 150 mm
Resolution: 1.80 µm
Repeatability: 4 µm
Drilling speed: 150 holes/min
X/Y drives: Hybrid motors
Z drive: Hybrid motor
Spindle motor: 40,000 RPM, software-controlled
Machine table: Table with central T-slot
Tool changing: Manual with convenient pushbutton
Tool holder: 1/8" standard, other sizes optional
Engraving head: With micron-level depth adjustment
Dimensions: B 455/ D 385/ H 360 mm
Weight: 35 kg
Power supply: 115 / 230V, 50 - 60 Hz
Included software: ColiBri + PCB module
Optional accessories: Vacuum table, camera, etc.
- Powerful, user friendly modular software
The PCB Prototyper comes with the very latest Colinbus software. The ‘Office Fluent’ user interface typical of Windows 7 makes working with the software pleasant and intuitive, and the modular software architecture allows users to tailor their software environment to their specific wishes.
- ColiBri and available software modules
The PCB Prototyper has a modular architecture, and the software for the PCB Prototyper also follows this principle. All of the software for the machine is located in ColiBri, a virtual environment where users can place all of their software modules. This may include a module for routing PCBs, a module for 3D modelling, a dispensing module, a module for camera functions or modules for other applications − including user-generated modules. This gives users a machine that exactly matches their needs and does exactly what they want. ColiBri recognises the files opened by the user and automatically launches the appropriate module.
- PCB module
The PCB module combines all the packages necessary for making high-quality printed circuit boards. It is supplied with the machine as standard. The PCB module is fully functional software without any restrictions, unlike previous packages with some features omitted in budget versions of the software. The PCB module includes all the features and capabilities currently available in the realm of mechanical PCB fabrication.
How it works: an overview
Importing the layout Everybody has their preferred drawing package for designing PCB layouts, and the files generated by these packages must be imported. This is fast and easy − simply select the file you want, and the layout is displayed on the monitor. If you are working with a layout for a multilayer board, each layer is assigned its own colour, and you can hide or show individual layers as desired.
- Generating routing paths
After the complete PCB layout has been imported, you can start the computation of the routing paths. When it comes to path computation, the PCB module is one of the fastest CAM packages on the market. In the accompanying screen shot, all layers except one have been hidden, along with the tracks in that layer.
- Removing residual copper
The basic process of routing a PCB consists of isolating individual tracks from the rest of the copper. However, for some designs it is desirable to remove all residual copper (unnecessary copper) to obtain a result similar to boards made using conventional etching. The PCB module allows you to choose where to remove residual copper and how much to remove − such as over the entire board (as in the accompanying screen shot) or within selected areas, such as areas where soldering would otherwise be difficult. The software determines which routing bits it can use for copper removal and proposes the most attractive strategies. For example, large areas may be removed with a 3-mm bit, while narrow strips may be removed with a 0.1-mm bit.
- The ideal alternative: spike removal
Regardless of how clever the strategies may be, removing residual copper takes time. The spike removal function is actually intended for removing objectionable spikes of copper, which are tiny leftover bits of copper that may come loose when the board is cleaned and cause shorts. Colinbus has expanded this function to allow users to define how much material to remove and what to remove. This is a very handy tool for advanced users, since it allows the routing process to be accelerated and improved.The upper screen shot shows a PCB without spike removal, while the lower screen shot shows a PCB with spike removal. In the latter case, you can clearly see that the operator asked for more than just removing small leftover bits of copper. If you examine the image closely, you can see that copper is removed in locations where the operator though the clearance between the tracks or pads was too small. You can also see that all right-angle routed corners have been rounded off − a option that is often used for HF circuit boards. For the sake of clarity, the original design is shown here in green, the routing paths are shown in red, and the residual copper is shown in black.
Residual copper removal is performed on both sides (component side and solder side) of the board illustrated above. The wide blue line marks a routing path cut to allow the PCB to be removed from the panel, which is why there are also two breakout pins at the left and right edges.The navigation bar is located at the left side of the window. In the screen shot shown here, five different PCB layouts have been loaded. You can use the navigation bar to show or hide layers and operations for each PCB layout. You can also select which PCBs you want to have made right away and have them be transferred to the production environment. There rest of the PCBs are assigned the status "ready for production". The status of all PCBs (fabricated or queued for production) is also monitored here.
- Production environment
After all the routing paths have been generated, you can fabricate the actual PCB. In the accompanying screen shot you can see the machine table (grey) with a piece of unmachined PCB material on the table surface. Naturally, you can use PCB material with any convenient dimensions. The control panel of the PCB router is on the right in the screen shot. This strategic panel is never in the way, since it appears only when it is actually needed. The navigation bar is located at the left side of the window.
Milling a double-sided PCB The integrated environment of the PCB module makes your job especially convenient. After generating the routing paths, you specify which PCBs you want to fabricate right away. In the example shown here, there is only one PCB. As you can see in the screen shot, it appears automatically in the production environment. This eliminates the need for transferring files, which is always a potential source of problems. Both layers are shown in this screen shot. The top layer will be milled on the visible side of the board, while the bottom layer will be milled on the other side after it is flipped over.
Milling multiple PCBs
All selected PCBs appear in the production window. The user can rotate and flip the PCBs as desired to make the best use of the available panel area. All types of PCBs can be arranged on the same panel: single sided, double sided or multilayer. Look carefully at the last three screen shots − you can see how the control panel disappears when its is not needed.
- Step and repeat − and much more
It’s very easy to make several copies of the same PCB. Simply specify how many boards you want to make in the X and Y directions, and the software does the rest. This is only one of many features available in the production environment. Other features are described in the detailed user guide.
What if something goes wrong?
The screen shot above shows how the tracks on the PCB should be milled. This visual representation of the PCB gives you a clear idea of what the result should look like. Problems during the routing process are rare, but with any mechanical process it’s always possible for something to go wrong. The most commonly occurring problems are broken drill bits and prematurely worn routing bits. The PCB module gives you all the tools you need to remedy any problems that may occur. For example, you can select specific holes to be drilled again or tracks to be milled again, so there’s no need to discard work already performed. If the machine is fitted with a camera, visual inspection of the PCB is very easy.
Too many features to describe here
Like all ColiBri modules, the PCB module is very powerful and has many functions and features that make things easier for designers. What we have described here is only a small selection of the available features.