Making quality printed circuit boards (PCBs) at home has yielded many solutions through the years with varying degrees of hassle, special equipment, and mess. The most popular DIY systems usually involve the use of acids to etch circuit traces from copper-coated fiberglass boards. For $3,499, the Voltera V-One minimizes the mess and makes DIY PCB production more accurate and automated.
Instructions Built In
The Voltera V-One uses a gantry system, similar to a 3D printer or CNC mill, to move accurately in the X, Y, and Z dimensions. Rather than having a single fixed print head, the V-One has three tool heads that attach magnetically: a probe to measure the blank PCB and feature locations, a conductive ink dispenser that draws the circuit traces and part pads, and a solder paste dispenser that applies solder to pads for surface-mount devices (SMD). The base of the V-One also heats up like a skillet to bake the conductive ink into place and reflow SMD parts.
The Voltera team has done an incredible job of guiding the user through the process of making a PCB on the V-One, with the software shepherding you through each step. After uploading a Gerber file, you mount the blank PCB, measure its location, print the design, and let it bake to set the conductive ink in place.
From there, you drill through-holes and vias manually (using more conductive ink to connect the two sides of the PCB). The machine applies the solder paste, but you have to mount the SMD parts by hand. The V-One then runs the board through a proper reflow temperature profile for the supplied solder paste. Once cooled, you have a complete PCB without any chemicals or milling mess.
The V-One is not without its problems though. It is easy to over-dispense solder, and with larger pads the software can call for too much ink. The ink itself works well with the supplied solder paste for surface-mount soldering, but I found through-hole soldering jobs had a hard time sticking to the conductive ink traces.
Also, while the software is easy to follow, do not expect this to be a quick process. Depending on the size of the board, plan on about an hour or two to complete the process (similar to other DIY PCB procedures). There are lots of steps and, for an automated tool, lots of manual interaction. I would have loved to see a drill attachment that automated the drilling of through-hole points and vias.
Putting the V-One to Use
To really test the V-One thoroughly I needed to do more than just follow their example projects or download a circuit; I wanted to actually make something on my own. In 2009, shortly after founding my first hackerspace, HackPittsburgh, I hosted a Friday night event where we had fun making beeps and boops on an Arduino based synthesizer project called Auduino. Flash forward to today, and some of the members in my current space inspired me to resurrect that project and turn it into a standalone PCB.
I could have simply designed this as a shield to use with an existing Arduino, but I wanted to make it an all-in-one board. I chose to use an Atmega32u4 chip, the same chip found in the Arduino Leonardo and many other Arduino compatible devices. The 32u4 has the ability to natively handle USB communication and can even emulate other device types (like a MIDI device if I wanted to make my synth a MIDI controller).
I designed my PCB using Fritzing, an easy-to-use PCB layout software. Download the Fritzing and Gerber files, bill of materials, and code to make your own.
Most of the steps for this project were the same as the Voltera software itself, so the workflow was basically: print side one, bake, drill holes, fill vias, print side two, bake, apply solder paste, place parts, reflow, place and hand solder through-hole parts.
Tip: If you plan to drill through the PCB into a piece of scrap wood, be aware that the tiny micro-bits used for drilling PCBs can easily snap. I use a spade bit to drill a wide hole in my wood, then center the spot on the PCB that I am planning to drill through over the hole, so I do not have to worry about drilling too deep.
Create with Confidence
I really enjoyed making PCBs with the Voltera V-One. I felt like the process of making double-sided boards and Arduino shields (using one of Voltera’s pre-drilled blanks) was something I could do with a lot more confidence than with other techniques. If you want to make PCBs on a regular basis, ditch the acid and grab one of these.