Must Have Rapid Prototyping Tools
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Suppose your job involves rapidly iterating designs or creating a wide variety of products for clients. In that case, there are some essential tools available that can save you a tremendous amount of time, bringing high engineering risk devices to completion successfully. Whether you’re working on internal projects or developing high mix devices for clients as a consulting or freelance firm, these indispensable tools will help you ship a higher quality product in less time.
The tools on this list target those who are not afraid to get their hands dirty and populate a PCB themselves. When you’re rapidly prototyping devices to get the design finalized, it can be tough to wait for a contract manufacturer to fit you into their schedule. Even if you use a contract manufacturer to assemble your board initially, you are still likely to swap components on the circuit board to optimize a design. So, these tools are always great to have, even if you have someone else doing the initial assembly.
I regularly use every product on this list for rapidly prototyping designs for my project articles on this blog. These are the essential items I use in every job, and the list is trimmed down to specific brands and products after trying multiple options until I settle on the ones that just work for me without hassle or frustration.
One of the most versatile tools in my rapid prototyping arsenal is the Voltera V-One. The V-One is a deposition system, which can print conductive circuits using a silver ink paste or print solder paste directly on a board. It can do with a reasonably high resolution allowing down to 0.5 mm pitch components to be prototyped directly.
You can also build double-sided boards with the drilling attachment using rivets for vias. I don’t see this so much as a tool for building whole circuit boards. Instead, for me, it’s always been a way to make a prototype of a high-risk section of schematic rapidly or to evaluate a range of devices that don’t have development kits available or where the development kits are highly priced or hard to source.
With the paste deposition, you can quickly prototype boards that fill in the printing area without the need of a stencil – you just load your paste layer into the control software, and a minute or so later, you have a board ready for the components. With its built-in heat bed, you can reflow the board directly using the V-One without needing to worry about an oven or any other reflow system. This can allow you to utilize local following-day board services so you can prototype with multi-layer boards that have impedance control and all the other bells and whistles you need for high-speed interconnects or other complex requirements.
For me, the V-One quickly pays for itself when compared to the time wasted etching simple breakout boards myself, the exorbitant prices charged for following day board services, or the project delays waiting for low-cost boards to come in from overseas.
For many years now, I’ve been a big fan of Weller stations. The WD1 series of stations were fantastic - however, for the past few years, I’ve been using the WT series ever since the WD stations were discontinued. The WT series has not had the same quality of life experience for me as the WD1 did - the station regularly goes to sleep when I’m in the middle of using it, and it just doesn’t seem to be able to smash heat into a big ground plane as I would expect it to.
After my Altium community got sick of me complaining about it every time I used it, many people highly recommended that I try the JBC soldering stations. So, I contacted them and found my local distributor. The pricing is almost the same as the Weller WT series; however, my experience of using it is vastly different. I’ve been highly impressed with the stations on each board I’ve used it with.
I’ve mentioned before in articles that I’m not a fan of thermal reliefs on any component pad. There was a discussion recently about thermal relief in my community. Many people said they are still living in thermal reliefs to making the hand assembly work for a technician easier. With the JBC station, I do not notice any differences between significant ground pours with many thermal vias and pads connected to a 0.2mm track. Soldering through-hole, grounded mounting tabs on a USB Type-A connector into a large multi-layer ground plane tool takes under a second per tab without having to preheat the board.
The Weller WT series continuously goes to sleep in the middle of soldering something; the JBC stations are far more intelligent. The station always puts the handpiece to a standby temperature when you place it in the cradle. With its rapid heat-up times, it recovers to maximum soldering temperature by the time you retrieve it from the cradle and get it to the workpiece. If you leave it for too long, it goes into a hibernation mode, ready to come back to life if you remove it from the cradle but sitting at room temperature, which only adds another 1.5 seconds or so to the heat up time. This is spectacular for conserving the tip life and saves me from going insane as the station does not shut down just as I’m about to finish soldering a component onto the board.
As a final set of satisfying bonuses when using the JBC, you can pull the soldering tip out of the pen without touching it, as the base has a point for grabbing a hot tip to allow rapid switching. If you’re clearing excess solder off your tip or getting rid of tarnished solder/crusty flux residue, then the station offers several methods. The traditional wet sponge has a home in the station, plus it has a high-temperature-resistant rubber lip for tapping excess solder off. Also, a brass wool sponge artfully hiding behind a rubber flap saves you from having specs of molten solder flying all over your bench.
When it comes to reworking boards or reflowing solder paste, nothing beats hot air for versatility. It can melt the solder itself or just add a bit of extra heat if you need it. I’ve used the 858D type hot air station for a decade or so now, sourced from several different brands. They are incredibly cheap and highly effective. You can reflow entire boards, no matter the size, with just this hot air station without any need for a preheater. It’s also perfect for using with heat shrink and clearing away hot glue cobwebs.
The hot air unit automatically cools down and goes to sleep when mounted on its rest (which I have attached to extrusion on my test equipment rack). This means you can leave the station permanently switched on without the risk of setting fire to your wall while you’re not using the unit.
You can buy kits with a vast range of ESD tweezers in all sorts of shapes and sizes from online marketplaces very cheaply, but unfortunately, the metals used in their construction are magnetic and not much stiffer than butter. They don’t spring well, their sharp tips bend with very little force, and are just not finished very well.
The Swanstrom 7-SAH has none of these shortcomings; they are not particularly expensive and offer good value for money. You won’t bend the tips just by jamming them into cut tape when you attempt to pull the cover tape off. They are also non-magnetic, so you won’t have to worry about components attaching themselves at the most inconvenient moment. Finally, all the metal is ground down to a smooth finish making them comfy to use and aesthetically pleasing.
As someone who can spend hours hand assembling boards, the large soft handle is a dream to use. The handles are also slightly textured, making them much more comfortable to grip than your typical epoxy-coated metal tweezers.
If you’re working with electronics and don’t have an ESD workstation, then you will want an ESD mat on your desk or work area. An ESD mat will help equalize potentials between you, objects on your desk, and the circuit you’re working on. So, as you generate a static charge, it will be grounded away from you. My desks feature relatively low-cost “house brand” vinyl mats from local electronics distributors, but I’m not typically working with high-cost, highly sensitive devices. As with all things, ESD mats and other ESD treatments for a lab come in a range of performance categories and price points depending on what level of ESD protection you require.
This is a tool I do not own, but it comes highly recommended from several reliable sources. I had discussed the possibility of adding a Vision Mantis scope to this list, but it’s an expensive piece of equipment that is not as versatile as other expensive items on this list. Several people suggested an autofocusing microscope from Aliexpress; there are quite a few on offer. However, one from Eakins Micscope Store was explicitly recommended by someone who has owned one. They said that it’s fantastic when mounted to a large screen for doing board assembly and rework, allowing you to work with small components much more efficiently without suffering eye fatigue.
I find these devices that have the autofocus unit in the camera body, moving the sensor rather than the lens up and down, really interesting. It allows many different lens options to be used - with an industry-standard C mount, the possibilities for using different lenses are endless.
With the basic tools out of the way, let’s dive into what, for me, is the meat of rapid prototyping: building prototypes. With the Voltera V-One, soldering station, and hot air rework station, we have ways to get things hot, but nothing yet to get hot.
Solder Paste - Loctite/Henkel GC10 SAC305
I hear all too often of people hand soldering every single 0402/0603/QFN onto bare boards with a soldering station. If you have time to wait for a stencil to arrive or can make them in-house with your laser cutter, then using a stencil to print paste onto a board is by far the cheapest way to get production quality results by hand.
If your board fits in the Voltera V-One’s print area, you can use Voltera’s paste deposition feature. I can generally deposit paste with a V-One faster than set up a frameless stencil to print paste onto my board by hand. Still, the stencil can print more refined pitch components than the V-One can, so it all depends on the board and components I choose to use.
There are several things I love about GC10; firstly, it’s a room temperature paste. At past employers, having solder paste in the office fridge was considered a health and safety no-no (not very adventurous!). There usually wasn’t room to put a bar fridge or similar somewhere in the lab to store solder paste, which created a problem. GC10 can be stored at room temperature for up to a year, which is longer than many other pastes can be stored in a fridge. The second fantastic thing about GC10 is its very long open time; from the point when you apply the paste to your board to the time when you reflow, GC10 offers you a comfortable 8 hrs. – more than enough time to hand populate all but the highest component count boards.
If you are regularly hand assembling boards stretching the limits of GC10, it’s most likely going to be cheaper for your company to lease a pick and place machine like the Essemtec Fox. This is fast to set up, offers paste jetting capabilities, and is, most importantly, easy for infrequent or untrained users to operate successfully. The cost of labor when assembling boards by hand can be substantial.
If buying GC10 for the first time, aim for the higher mesh numbers (i.e., T4 or T5). This will allow pasting of smaller stencil apertures and is generally an easier product to work with, despite costing near enough the same amount of money. The half-kilogram tubs of GC10 are not cheap, but most labs will struggle to use all of that within a year!
While solder paste is perfect for getting the board populated the first time, it’s generally simpler to use wire solder to rework and swap out passive components to evaluate different component values. I have a range of solder wire diameters from 0.8mm down to 0.38mm - and I would likely go with a smaller wire diameter as well if I could remember to buy it!
Larger diameter wire is fantastic for soldering cables, through-hole parts, and other tasks that just need many solders to be applied quickly. If you use small diameter wire for these tasks, you find yourself spending more time feeding wire to your soldering iron tip than soldering.
Smaller diameter wire is fantastic for metering out small amounts of solder. If you’re soldering an 0402 or 0201 component onto the board, using wire larger than the component can drown the whole area in one giant ball of molten solder before you know it. Small diameters of solder are also great for laying across the joint you are about to make. Then, pressing the soldering tip onto it gives you instant molten metal and flux right where you need it, allowing you to make a high-quality joint extremely fast.
When I asked for suggestions on revisions to my 2019 Lab Equipment article, many people on the Altium Forum suggested adding Gel Flux to the list. I admit, I had not tried gel flux and was quite happy with my flux pen, but I ordered a tube of MG Chemicals “no-clean” gel flux and Chip Quick’s equivalent to try out. I’m now a convert to gel flux. It’s very thick stuff; it sticks to everything and doesn’t tend to just vanish on the first sign of any warmth like a flux pen does. The gel flux is fantastic for just bathing an area in flux and then heating it, giving you beautiful solder joints made under a layer of flux, preventing any chance of oxidation. It’s also fantastic for creating a perimeter around a leadless part if you need to reheat it to fix a bad joint or a shorted joint beneath the IC. It gives you time to poke and prod at the IC while it’s floating on molten solder (or even take it off and put it back on again without getting an oxidized joint.
Despite its ease of use and significant improvements compared to using liquid flux on a board, it does have a considerable downside. “No clean” only means the solder is low activity, pure rosin flux. It has very little or no activators in it, so it won’t rust your board if it’s left on. If you use flux gel, you end up with a sticky mess wherever you use it, so you want to clean it off. An ultrasonic cleaner does a fantastic job if the components on your board are washable. Otherwise, use a paper towel soaked in isopropanol and applied locally to remove the worst of it.
Despite how tremendous gel flux can be, I still like to use my flux pen for wiping a quick bit of flux over a joint to finish it off and make it all nice and shiny. I want to add a bit extra flux to some small pads that I’ve taken a component off and where I’m just about to drop on a new component. It’s also great for high strand count wires as it wicks into the strands and allows you to tin them rapidly.
I’m currently using the MG Chemicals “no-clean” flux pens as my flux pen of choice.
If you’re going to be using hot air to rework a board or to solder it for the first time, you’ll need some protection for your smart ESD mat. I found some exciting silicone baking mats that are manufactured as an array of pyramids that I think are intended to cook meats in an oven and allow the fats to drain away. For me, they are perfect for supporting a board as I blast it with heat. The shape of the mat provides a fantastic way to isolate the board from my underlying work surface. It protects the surface from the heat gun and stops the surface from pulling heat away from the board.
I bought mine from Amazon; there are many sting shapes, patterns, and colors to try out!
Polyimide tape is genuinely adaptable for use in the prototype lab. The tape can work at high temperatures, even handle temperatures above the melting point of the solder. It’s great for sticking over any pads that you don’t want to connect electrically, so you can use some wire to make an alternate connection. You can use it as a thermal barrier when reworking components to protect other nearby components from the hot air - especially useful with through-hole connectors or switches that can’t handle having heat close by. If you’re hand assembling double-sided boards with large inductors that are too heavy to stay positioned on the bottom side with surface tension alone when going through the second reflow, you can strap them to the board with this tape. It’s also pretty good at just being sticky tape! You’ll find dozens of uses for Polyimide tape. I have several rolls handy as it’s cheaply available from online marketplaces in a variety of widths.
I’m confident that you’ve had a time when you simulated everything perfectly and built your board only to find a slightly different value of resistor or capacitor that works better in the real world. It’s all well and good to plan the perfect board and order just those components you specified, but when you need to try other values, nothing beats having a nice box of components handy so that you can try out different values.
I have part assortments for connectors, screws, standoffs, inductors, and all sorts of capacitors - but the ones I turn to the most and therefore see as most valuable are my SMT capacitor and resistor kits. If I’m building a prototyping board, I try to stick with using 0402 and 0603 passives as these are the sizes that I have the best range of component kits for.
I find the Wurth Elektronik kits offer the best value for money for capacitors, despite not being particularly cheap. However, you do get free refills for life if you buy your kits from Wurth directly, which is a huge bonus.
0402 MLCC - Wurth 885050 offers the broadest range of values
0603 MLCC - Wurth 885060 is perfect for most uses.
Wurth has capacitor kits going up to 1812 sizes and packs with 0603/0805/1206 sizes all in one box. I don’t often find myself using through-hole, or surface mount electrolytic, or polymer capacitors, particularly as these tend to be used in a bulk capacitance role and are less likely to be critical to a design that needs to be swapped out. Wurth does have great kits for these, as well.
For resistors, I have to admit I just buy packs from the online marketplaces. Huge resistor assortments with 20-50 of each value seem to be readily available, though unfortunately, you can’t say the same for capacitors. Despite their low cost, 1% resistor kits measure within 1% of their advertised values on my benchtop multimeter using 4 wire measurements. Most component distributors will have assortment kits of specific name brand resistors if you must have high quality, reputable brand components.
When it comes to inductors, these are a component you will want to try different in-circuit values. However, I don’t find general assortment kits to recommend you buy for this purpose. Suppose you’re working on a specific product that you will be rapidly prototyping, and you need to switch out the inductors. In that case, you should buy an inductor kit for that series from the manufacturer, or your component distributor may have an assortment for that series. There are so many inductor series available with so many different land patterns; it is not practical to just buy all of them. It is also probably not very practical to just buy a random assortment that looks nice.
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