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Electronic Design

Build Your Own PC Board: A Designer's Dream

LPKF's ProtoMat S62 desktop milling machine exceeds designers' expectations with its mini learning curve coupled with low cost and fast turnaround.

Electronic Design engineers cast their votes on the most popular Leapfrog article of this year and... insert drum roll here... the winner is LPKF Laser and Electronics' low-cost, S62 circuit-board plotter (Fig. 1). Not only is the article popular ("Build A Board In-House Without The Mess," March 31, p. 39, ED Online 9984), but the LPKF Laser and Electronics' webcast covering the S62 was and remains a very popular session.

The desktop S62 is a 3D milling machine designed to create pc boards. Its 10-tool autochanger enables it to handle a wide range of jobs (Fig. 2). The plotter's milling head travels at 150 mm/s, and the high-performance spindle motor ratchets up to 62,000 rpm. Also, its Z-axis movement permits depth in RF designs as well as very flexible modifications to non-pc-board materials (such as covers, photomasks, and labels).

According to LPKF's S62 sales manager Jim Greene, the S62s are rolling off the assembly line to customers as fast as the company can make them. Thanks to their $18,900 price tag, units can find homes in organizations that couldn't afford this type of technology in the past.

Many users cite the unit's fast turnaround as its key advantage (see "Two To Three Custom Jobs A Day," below, "Prototyping At The University Of New Brunswick," p. 90, and "Building PC Boards In British Columbia," p. 92 ). This feature had a major impact on numerous design aspects because it's now possible to crank out a new design as it's developed. The S62 also makes incremental changes, fixes, or enhancements practical. Test, debug, refine can now be the mantra for both board development and software.

The ability to quickly create a single board means that developers can verify their design before making additional boards. This avoids wasted boards when a major design defect is found. Even minor fixes can be easily accommodated.

When it comes to media, many designers are starting to appreciate flexibility. The S62 can cut photomasks, pockets in microwave boards, covers for boxes (including holes for sockets), and much more.

Most S62 users are experimenting with these features, which can enable them to create customized boards and boxes for individual projects. This is in contrast to pc-board houses, which are set up to make dozens of identical boards per run. These houses still play a part for many S62 users because they do excel in volume production compared to the S62. You won't make thousands of identical boards with the S62, but a dozen or more is well within the in-house breakeven point.

Inhouse pc-board creation isn't new. But it was never cleaner and as inexpensive as with the S62. Moreover, developers can keep control of a design. The CIA and NSA aren't the only organizations that will restrict access to a board.

Proprietary intellectual property (IP) is often the centerpiece of a company's product design, and this is often embodied in the pc board. The S62 simplifies security management, because physical security is typical within this workplace.

The S62 also has other implications when combined with the fiducial recognition camera used for repeated operations on a pc board or other material. The ability to add more circuitry to an existing board enables delivery of custom boards, depending on the application and buyer. A supply of partially configured boards can be updated easily using the S62. Likewise, a board consumer could use an S62 to add circuitry to a virgin part of a pc board.

S62 users discover that there's a short learning curve. Not even sophisticated and very compact designs can hold back novices. If the pc-board design software can generate it, then the S62 usually is able to comply.

Developers can push the size limits of their design because there's little cost to trying out a design. A newer, more compact design only requires a pc-board design change and a new board from the S62.

Because operating the S62 requires minimal training, virtually anyone can handle the job of actually setting up and running the unit. Of course, developers love to get their hands on it because they don't have to wait for someone else to configure the system. Unfortunately, they often must wait in line due to the units' popularity among other groups within their own organization. Luckily, it's easy to hide the S62. It's self-contained, small, and quiet. Just attach a PC via a USB cable to drive it.

Milling pc boards isn't new. Units that are larger and more expensive than the S62 have been available for years, many from LPKF. But the price, size, and ease of use cause S62 users to make a quantum leap to change how they design and what designs they can consider.

The ProtoMat S62 has proven to be extremely popular. However, you can be on the lookout for another soon-toarrive unit from LPKF Laser and Electronics—the less expensive S64 forgoes the tool auto-changer, which isn't always required.

LPKF Laser and Electronics

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