Blog - Screaming Circuits

Fiducials and Odd PC Boards

One of the handy aspects of getting boards assembled at Screaming Circuits is that we don't require fiducial marks for standard process boards. I would say that we build far more boards without fiducials than with. That's cool, but there are sometimes when fiducials really are a good idea. In fact, if you've got room on the PC board, they're always a good idea (just because something isn't required, doesn't mean that it's not a good idea).

Some boards are more in need of the marks than others. For example, not long ago, we got a rigid flex board in. It had three separate rigid boards connected by flex, designed to be folded into a stack. It looked pretty similar to the mock up in this image. Rigid flex mockup

The boards didn't have any fiducial marks. Normally, what we do, is find a via hole, thru-hole pin hole, or some similar feature to use as a fiducial. That usually works, but not always. In this case, the length of the flex varied slightly from board to board. The PCB color was also very low contrast, which made it difficult for the machine to consistently recognize any mark we picked.

That meant our machines had a hard time finding the "home" spot, and we had to reset for each of the connected boards. Finding a spot on one board did not guarantee that we'd know where to place parts on the other two boards in the set.

In this case, it would have been far better if the boards were a consistent distance apart, and if each of the three boards had a set of fiducial marks.

What makes a good fidicual?

Most CAD packages have fiducial marks in their components library. Basically, it needs to be a metal dot surrounded by an area without any copper or solder mask. More than one is best. It should be an asymmetrical pattern that can only be oriented one way.

I've got some more details in this article here.

Duane Benson
Routed up like a fiducial
Another rigid flex in the night

USB Type-C Connectors

It wasn't terribly long ago that pretty much every cell phone came out with its own custom charging cable. It was a major step forward when they all (except Apple) standardized on the USB micro-B connector.

However, there are a number of limitations with the. First, it takes a minimum of three attempts to get the orientation right when trying to plug in a cable. Second, it's limited in maximum current carrying capacity.


Now, along comes the USB 3.1 Type-C cable and connector. It's similar in size, universally polarized (the connector and the cable can be plugged in any end to any end and in any orientation), it has much higher data thru-put, and it's spec'ed to carry up to 3 Amps. Further, it has alternate modes so other standards, such as DisplayPort and Thunderbolt.

SMT - TH uUSB with PCBThe connectors are larger than the micro-B, as you can see in the comparison photo above: micro-B, Type-C with only surface mount connections, and Type-C with both surface mount and thru-hole wiring, and a US dime. The size difference won't be an issue in most cases, but it could be in really small devices. My guess is that we'll be talking about a smaller, Type-D connector, not long from now.

All three of the shown surface mount connectors have thru-hole mounting tabs. That adds strength, but it does bring one caution with it. Looking at the micro-B connector in the image on the right, you can see that the tabs are formed out of the same sheet metal as the shell.

You can also see that the tabs don't stick all the way through the PC board. This can lead to some deception when soldering. Without the tabs protruding, it's easy to believe that you don't have enough solder in the connection. If you feed more solder in, it will likely wick along the tab, and end up inside the receptacle, preventing the cable from being plugged in. If you're hand soldering or reworking these type of connectors, keep a close watch on the amount of solder you're using.

Duane Benson
Fester Bester Tester is alive and well and living where?

Arduinos Spotted

ESC2016 bage proto 640I've given a few talks at the various Embedded Systems Conferences on the subject of the Arduino as a real prototyping tool. I've designed and built a number of custom Arduino-compatible boards myself. I've become an advocate for the Arduino as a legitimate tool for the commercial engineering world. But sometimes advocating isn't enough. You need to see it in action to believe it.

Here at Screaming Circuits, we build a lot of different types of boards for a lot of different companies and organizations. The are boards being used for R&D, consumer products, education, medical devices, military things, space craft, Kickstarter companies, aviation... You name it, we've probably built it; up into space, down underwater, and anything in between. What's the engineering joke? "Civil Engineers build targets, mechanical engineers build weapons to destroy them." We build the electronics for both.

But, I've gotten off target. The point I wanted to make is that, if we're building it, it's most likely a professional/commercial caliber product. The other day, amongst the many other designs being assembled out on our shop floor, I spotted a shield, full size for the Arduino Mega. I don't see anything close to every job that we build, but it's gotten pretty common for me to see something Arduino compatible - either in form-factor, code compatible, or both, out on our shop floor.

One such example is the electronic badge we built for the upcoming Embedded Systems Conference in Boston. Our partner, Sunstone Circuits provided the PC boards, Synapse-Wireless designed it and provided the wireless modules. We bought the rest of the parts and built it.

With as many as I'm seeing these days, I can only conclude that the Arduino has entered the commercial design world.

Duane Benson
Open source the pod bay doors, HAL

Advanced Technology now available

CCB - Concrete Circuit Board: Rumored for years, scoffed at for even more years, and now available to you - Concrete substrate for circuit boards!
The US NCA (National Circuit Agency) recently declassified this new technology, and granted exclusive assembly rights to Screaming CCB layersCircuits, due in large part to our prior work with the revolutionary Cordwood technology.

CCB has many advantages, such as a thermal expansion coefficient of 17, and a density of 18.98 g/cm3, almost as much as depleted uranium, allowing for solid grounding without bolts.

Prior to now, CCB had only been used in the most secret aviation and space applications, such as the still classified KHD-18 spy satellite and the LB3 Keystone light bomber. It's used all over Area-51 and has been identified as the cause of 42% of UFO sightings. (I can't remember if I'm allowed to say that or not)

For the civilian world, CCB is ideal for mobile* and IOT (Internet of things) devices

* CCB circuit board substrate comes in a minimum 1.2" thickness to prevent cracking. Applications subject to thermal variance or vibration may require the addition of rebar. Titanium and beryllium rebar are not available.
Duane Benson

Electronic Business Card Holder, Part III

If you haven't yet read part one or two of this series, find them here:

With all of the key design decisions under my belt, it was time to build. I ordered the boards and parts myself, then hopped onto our website quote engine and placed a kitted order. At the time, I hadn't had anything built for a while, so it kind of freaked people out to get an order from within the company. When I do this, I like to go through our web system, just like any other customer, which sometimes causes a bit of a "we traced the call, and it's coming from inside your house..." moment.

20160324_103054Anyway, we didn't have any problems with the build. Fortunately, I took my own advice and carefully labeled the LED polarity. LED polarity marking "standards" are so unstandard, that extra caution is always a good thing. Anything to reduce ambiguity is welcome.

My calculations suggested that I should get six to nine months of battery life with a few cards being pulled per day. After running the blue LED version for about three months, I was satisfied that battery life would be sufficient. That was good timing, because at about the same time, I was down to about two weeks before the show that I was planning for (one of the Embedded Systems Conferences).

Again, I sent an order through our website. This time a full turn-key, using PC boards from Sunstone. And, this time, no one was 20160324_101515surprised by seeing an in house order. I ended up with plenty of time to program the boards before the show, and was ready to give them away for our in-booth contest.

Since that time, I've left a blue/red card holder and a green/red card holder on my desk with the original batteries. After about a year and a half, the battery voltage dropped enough that the blue LEDs no longer show. The red and green, with a lower forward voltage, are still going strong.

Here are the final specs:

  • 1.5" x 3.5"
  • Two CR2032 coin cell batteries
  • Has a Microchip in circuit (ICSP) programming port
  • Has an I2C/SPI port
  • Microchip PIC18F46k22 microcontroller
  • Freescale MMA8452 3 axis accelerometer
  • Recommended capacity, 10 cards

Next time, I tell you what you need to do to get one of these limited edition Screaming Circuits electronic business card holders.

Duane Benson
A farmer is someone out standing in his field

Happy St Patrick's Day!

In honor of St Patrick's day and all things green, I give you the PCB...


And some trivia. You may have noticed that the soldermask used on most PC boards is green, as is the paint used on most steel truss bridges. Why is that? And what do the two things have in common? Why green PCBs and why green bridges?

To answer, I brought in color expert expert Patty O'Patrick O'Dell, who stated: "Many bridges and PCBs are green because they absorb red and blue light, only reflecting the green."

That wasn't quite what I was getting at, but close enough. The important thing, is that, generally, in commercial products, the PC boards are hidden, so the color doesn't matter that much. With prototypes and a lot of the hobby or development boards, that is not the case, so many companies have chosen to use a different color as a part of their identity.

Arduino products are blue, as are most boards from Adafruit. SparkFun makes theirs red. Ti Launchpads are red as well. The Beaglebone uses color, essentially, as a model number; Beaglebone black, Beaglebone green. This is possible because major PC board fab houses have made different colors more economical than they used to be.

I've been asked if the color makes any difference electrically. In general, no. If you're dealing with super high speeds, RF, or other exotic conditions, it's always best to ask your board house. In those fringe areas, a lot of things have the potential to make a difference. Other than that, if you can afford it, and want to make a statement, go for it. You can often get different color silk screen legend too. Just make sure there's contrast between the two. White silkscreen on white soldermask would not be the best choice.

Duane Benson
Beware the monsters from Id

Electronic Business Card Holder, Part II

If you haven't yet read it, rush on back and read part one of this series... Done yet? Okay, good.

When I left off, I had promised some design decisions, of which, the power source would be the first. I wanted a long battery life. If the batteries need to be changed every other month, it would just get too expensive, and annoying, so I wanted at least six months. A year would be even better.

20160308_090949I did some estimations and determined that a CR2032 coin cell would give me about that longevity. I decided to use two, for good measure, and to make a stable base, but mostly for stability. The two batteries go on the bottom of the card holder, as shown in the photo on the right, and have enough weight to give decent stability. For testing purposes, I also put in connections to use a two-AAA battery holder.

For my first build, I decided to used red and blue LEDs. The blue have a higher forward voltage, so I could get a sense of battery life faster than with the eventual red and green.

Speaking of battery life, the accelerometer was the bigger challenge of the two ICs. The MCU (microcontroller) and accelerometer need to sleep when not being used. The PIC18F46k22 MCU will be easy. I don't need any peripherals on while sleeping. It just needs to wake on interrupt. Given that, it'll range in the area of a few tens of nano Amps during sleep. The MMA8452 accelerometer, on the other hand, is up in the micro Amps.

At the slowest sample rate, 1.56Hz, it draws 6 micro Amps. At a sample rate of 800 Hz, it draws a whopping 165 micro Amps. The sampling rate is critical - it's the number of times per second the accelerometer check for movement. Too slow, and it will miss a fast hand picking up a card. Too fast, and the battery life will suffer. After some experimentation, I settled on 50 Hz, drawing 14 micro Amps. 50Hz was the slowest sample rate that gave reliable detection.

Stay tuned for my next installment, where I'll cover the first build, programming, and the test period.

Duane Benson
I'm happy I live in a split level head

Behind the Scenes of Screaming Circuits

We love what we do here at Screaming Circuits. As the first dedicated online quick-turn manufacturer, we've worked hard at delivering on our mission to reinvent electronics manufacturing in North America. It's very important to us to make the design engineer's job (your job) easier, and we take that quite seriously.

We couldn't do it without our parent company, Milwaukee Electronics. In fact, Screaming Circuits started out, back in 2002, as an experiment to help a Milwaukee Electronics customer out of a bind. It worked well, and in 2003, was brought online.

Why do I bring that up now? Well, Milwaukee Electronics hasn't stayed in the old-world of manufacturing. It's improved, expanded, and grown, despite the difficulties the US  manufacturing industry has faced.

And, as testament to that, Venture Outsource just named Milwaukee Electronics as one of the Top-10 EMS Providers in USA-West.

Congratulations to Milwaukee Electronics!

ME Logo sm With Tagline 2014

Electronics Swarms - Overhangs

20160229_144328As I've stated many times before, we see many, many different jobs go through our shop. In those jobs, we see some of the absolute newest components and packages; some not yet available to the public; some are so R&D that they never will be available outside of a lab. We see the best of the best in terms of design practices and complexity, and we see many that aren't so much in that arena.

Given that, it would seem logical that the design problems we see would be pretty much scattered all over the map. By some measures they are, but on a day to day basis, they tend to cluster. For a few months we'll see a lot of QFN footprint issues. In a different few months, we'll see a lot of via in pad issues, etc. I don't know why. It just works that way - problems come in swarms, or storms.

The latest swarm relates to panelized boards and components that stick over the edge of the board. We build things like that all the time. The problem comes in when the panel tabs come out right where the component overhangs. If the component overhangs in the cut out area, it's usually not a problem. However, if the component is on the connection tabs, we can't place that part without first depaneling. 20160229_144238

Probably the most common example is the surface mount USB Micro-B receptacle. It over hangs the board by a small amount, and that overhanging part is actually bent down. If it's at the tab, it won't even mount flush. Take a close look at the images along the right. That connector won't mount as it's sitting on a tab.

So, what do you do about it?

You can have your boards made as individuals. Although if you want short-run production, or if the boards are really small, that might not 20160229_150126be possible or practical. You can also talk to your fab house about it. They may be able to place the tabs in a spot that won't get in the way of the overhanging part, of they might be able to tell you where the tabs will be, allowing you to keep clear in your layout.

Duane Benson
Anyone ever drink Tab Clear?

An Electronic Business Card Holder

I design and build electronics at home, late at night when the spiders are out, and by day, I put my hours into Screaming Circuits. My job here doesn't involve building things. I'm the marketing department, but I like to keep as much manufacturing smeared all over me as is possible. Here's one way I do that.


Business cards are a bit of an anachronism today. I don't give out many, this being the 21st century and all, but I still need some on my desk - I guess to look businessy or something. No one's ever given me a cheap card holder with their logo on it, and I don't want to just scatter cards around. So, why not combine my need to display business cards on my desk with my compulsion to create electronic things? With that thought in mind, I decided to build an electronic business card holder. Of course, I first had to decide just what an electronic business card holder would be.

Here's what I came up with:

  • It should be small, about the size of a business card
  • It should have a lot of blinky lights
  • It should do something when a card is removed
  • It should have a long battery life
  • It should use tiny parts to show off our manufacturing capability a bit
  • It should be 100% buildable within our electronics manufacturing process (meaning it should be just electronics; no bolts or case)

That's not a long list, but does involve a few decisions. I'm pretty familiar with Microchip PIC processors, so that would be a logical choice to drive the thing. Arduino compatibility would be cool, but I'd have more trouble with battery life, and 20160226_095148the PIC microcontrollers come in some pretty inexpensive forms.

I'd recently been using a variant of the PIC18F46k22 on another project. I comes in a 5mm x 5mm QFN package and can be purchased for less than $3.00 in small quantities. it has plenty of I/O and can be set to a very low power sleep mode. I settled on that MCU and a CR2032 coin cell battery for power.

20160226_094829Rather than add any extra hardware to hold the cards, I came up with an arrangement of pin headers and small push-button switches. (as in the photo on the right) One header is the six pin Microchip in circuit programming (ICSP) header, and the other is a six pin I2C/SPI header. Not that I need I2C or SPI, but with that, you could turn this into a robot business card holder or something.

I considered a light sensor to detect when a card is being picked up, but that would require leaving the A to D powered up, and it would be less reliable due to changes in lighting. I looked around my junk box at home, and found a Freescale MMA8452 3 axis accelerometer in a 3mm x 3mm QFN package. It also has a decent low power mode, and can be talked to over I2C.

19 GPIO pins remained open, so naturally, I had to put in 19 LEDs. Stay tuned for my next installment, where I'll go through some of the design decisions. At the end of this series, I'll be giving out ten of these, so stay tuned to see how you might be able to get one.

Duane Benson
If you dreamed you saw the silver spaceships flying
That's a okay. They're RoHS compliant