ElectroneX for 2019 has recently wrapped up after the two day event in Melbourne. We had the pleasure of attending the event and wanted to share just some of the amazing tech we “nerded out” over.
"It was great to meet experts in their fields."
"I’m throughly impressed by the PCB 3D printing technology. This was something we could only dream about a few years ago."
The ElectroneX expo and conference this year was held at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre across the 11th and 12th of September. This ‘electronics design & assembly expo’ is dedicated to the electronics industry, from all aspects of production, assembly, systems development, maintenance and service. The event is specifically for trade only, however, we were pleased to see that high school and uni students were also allowed to attend.
We initially thought that the thirty eight exhibitors were too few, however, we soon realised that most of them represented multiple brands. Hundreds of brands were exhibited overall, with many products powered up and operating.
By and large, the quality of the products and brands represented was remarkable, and getting to meet and pick the brains of the engineers and industry experts made the trip well worthwhile. There were also free keynotes to attend, which included how to design a flyback transformer, learning about the latest IPC assembly and production standards, and hearing how 3D printers can make rapid PCB prototyping in hours, instead of days.
WALKING THE HALL
It was great to see several local PCB manufacturers at the expo, such as Lintek, On-track and Greenpcb. The board quality on display was fantastic, including some with very unusual shapes. There were also machines that rapid prototype PCBs, which we highlight below.
If you love to solder, there was no shortage of amazing soldering and rework stations to play with. Brands such as Hakko, Weller, JBC, Thermaltronics and Ersa were all being demonstrated, along with suitable fume extraction solutions. Industrial size wave soldering machines and automated SMD component handling systems were also on display.
Test and measurement devices, such as digital storage oscilloscopes were on show, including the latest from RIGOL, Keysight Technologies and Rhode & Schwarz (You couldn’t miss the waveforms dancing away on the DSO’s). Other test equipment included multimeters, function generators, inspection aids, etc.
Other exhibitors to round out the hall provided service aids, systems integration solutions, testing or education services, coil winding services, enclosure manufacturing, and suppliers of electronic components, switches, interconnects, etc.
Below, we’ll highlight what caught our eye and what may interest you in your profession or hobby. Some of these products, makers like us can only dream about, but they give us a taste of what’s available. We include links to the vendor’s website if you want to learn more.
All in all, we were inspired by what we saw at the expo, and look forward to these cool products and services becoming more accessible to makers and electronics enthusiasts in the future.
To find out where and when the next ElectroneX event will be on you’ll have to keep an eye on their website: https://www.electronex.com.au/
Rapid PCB PrinterWWW.VOLTERA.IO
This was our top pick of the show! The Voltera PCB printer (Yes, it’s a printer!) enables you to rapid prototype PCBs in hours, saving you the need to etch your own board or use off-site PCB manufacturers. The incredible device can make double-sided boards on different substrates, draws the tracks using conductive ink, drills the holes, and can re-flow surface mount components.
The Voltera V-One was featured by both the Machinery Forum and Emona, although the Machinery Forum booth had the Voltera V-one out on display, which allowed us to get up close and appreciate the technology first hand. The Voltera PCB printer essentially extrudes a conductive ink, consisting of a silver-impregnated paste. This paste is deposited across the board creating the traces needed for your circuit. The beauty of this machine, of course, is that it is a complete one-stop solution. The machine does not simply just draw out your traces, you can easily swap the tool head and perform multiple different tasks. For example, if you have through-holes or vias, you can drop in the drill head and the machine will drill them for you. If you have SMD components, drop in the solder paste dispenser and the machine will not only add your solder paste precisely where it’s needed, but after you place the components It will even re-flow the solder, completing the soldering process for you. This simplifies and speeds up the rapid prototyping time, especially when using SMD components, as you don’t need to mess around with solder paste stencils.
The beauty of this machine, of course, is that it is a complete one-stop solution.
Sadly, we were unable to see the machine in operation, presumably due to the safety risks associated with an open machine like this in a public space. However, John from Machinery forum was on hand to explain the machine’s operation in detail. John also mentioned that you can watch a video of it in action on the Voltera.io website.
The first step is obviously to create your PCB design, which we were told can be done using any PCB design software that can export Gerbers. Popular software such as EagleCAD, KiCAD and Altium can work natively with the printer, which means you don’t need to learn an obscure CAD package to work with the machine. You simply upload your Gerbers to the Voltera software, which will create the toolpaths for the machine. It first drills the holes for your vias and through-hole components into a blank FR4 board. Once this is done, the machine will lay the curable paste down to create the physical traces. You then insert rivets in the via holes and cure the silver-impregnated paste traces using the heat from the build platform.
The printer can then deposit the solder paste directly to the SMD pads. Next, you place your components and the device applies the heat for the reflow process.
The printer has similar dimensions to many common desktop FDM 3D printers with a footprint of around 400 x 250 x 200mm. Naturally, since the Voltera is only printing PCBs, the machine is substantially shorter in the vertical axis.
The print area is 128 x 105mm and the bed heats up to 240°C for the reflow process and curing.
The printer is claimed to be able to print SMD pads down to 0402, which is a mere 1mm x 0.5mm! It also boasts a minimum trace width of 8mil (200 micron).
The silver-impregnated ink has a resistivity of 12mΩ/sq at 20°C and 70 microns high, which makes it quite a bit more resistive than your usual PCBs manufactured by traditional methods. This isn’t ideal for projects using higher currents as the traces themselves will add resistance, which will naturally reduce efficiency. You can use wider traces for example to overcome this issue.
This printer is perfect for high schools and universities teaching electronics and PCB design. This rapid prototyping technology gives students the ability to learn in a practical and effective way, without the need for messy (and maybe toxic) etching methods.
The ability to develop prototypes in-house would also be a benefit to the military and other industries who need to keep their designs confidential.
Sure, at the $7K price ticket, it’s outside of the average hobbyist budget, but could be worth getting the school or workplace to order. With that aside, it was only 5 years ago that the average 3D printer would cost well over this, suggesting that potentially these machines will continue to drop in price. Hopefully, it won’t be long for these machines to become affordable, just as 3D printers are today.
SOLDERING STATIONS WITH CURIE-POINT TECHNOLOGY
There were many soldering and rework station brands at the expo, but most use thermocouple technology to maintain temperature. Michael from Thermaltronics talked us through the benefits of their range that use Curie point technology instead.
Many soldering irons today operate on a very simple process. Generally speaking, they use a ceramic resistive heating element that converts DC current into thermal energy. This energy is then transferred to the tip of a soldering iron by simply screwing the tip to the heater cartridge, and attempting to make as much contact as possible to reduce the thermal resistance between the element and ceramic cartridge, iron and the iron and tip. They then use a thermocouple and microcontroller to read the reported temperature. If the temp is lower than desired, they apply current to the resistive element. Likewise, if it’s hotter, shutdown current to it.
Thermaltronics think they have a better way and we must say their demonstration was pretty encouraging.
Thermaltronics irons use what they call “Currie heat technology”. Instead of DC, they use a high frequency AC output ranging from 470kHz to 13.56MHz (depending on model) and an inductive load. This high frequency output enters a coil directly wound around the soldering iron heater, right where the heat is needed. When you pass a high frequency signal through a conductor, there is a natural phenomenon where the high frequency current only travels through the outer portion of the conductor, which is called the ‘skin effect’. This effect causes the magnetic heater to rapidly heat up. When the heater element reaches the curie point (The point the tip heater element loses its magnetic properties), the coil is no longer coupled to the heater due to the reduction of magnetic flux and thus, the heater cools. Once it cools past the Curie point of the heater element, the process repeats.
This is repeated constantly and rapidly, meaning the soldering iron should be able to adjust very quickly to the rapid temperature a soldering iron tip undergoes when soldering. In theory, this would also mean the system is 100% incapable of ever going over the rated temperature of the tip, as the curie point can’t be changed. Whilst we didn’t get to do any soldering with the iron, it was very quick to go from cold to melting solder, taking less than 10 seconds.
This Curie point technology does mean that additional tips need to be purchased if you need different Curie points. This isn’t much of an issue though for general hobbyist use, where one tip temp covers most of the soldering needs.
SMART SOLDERING ROBOT
If the old school hand soldering isn’t your thing, then Thermaltronics has a fully automated soldering robot that is impressive. These amazing machines are enabling local manufacturers to produce their electronics locally, instead of using overseas services. This keeps jobs in Australia and speeds up production time.
The robot as two heads; one to feed solder to the join and the other head has the soldering tip itself. It can support board sizes up to 200 x 200mm, can rotate the board 360°, calibrates the soldering tip before use and has programmed cleaning cycles.
The machine has a repeatable positional accuracy of 10 microns in the X, Y and Z axis and 20 micron rotational. This means the soldering tip will always be within ±0.01mm of its intended location. This is largely due to the robot having computer vision and mapping aided by laser measuring. The system does not just follow directives without any feedback the way our 3D printers do, but rather the machine knows exactly where the tool head is in 3D space, and thus how to move it to a known pre-programmed location. It also uses stepper motors with ballscrews for maximum stability and minimal backlash. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to see how the machine was programmed, although we imagine that it would be a matter of scanning one board and manually identifying the solder pads and fiducials on it. Then in subsequent boards, you simply need to scan the new board. The machine will calculate and map the tool path accordingly. Of course, that would not take into account the height and other obstructions on the board, such as the components already attached.
Naturally, the system uses the same Curie point technology system of their stand-alone systems.
The large Oritech stand had everything from quality hand tools to a massive X-ray machine for inspecting PCBs.
We were lucky enough to get a demonstration of this impressive X-ray machine. This device allows the user to visually inspect solder joins on a PCB, which may not sound too exciting at first, until you consider the solder points of a ball grid array (BGA). The pads of a BGA are all on the underside of the device and thus can’t be inspected visually by any other means. With this X-ray machine, the user can zoom right in on every single pad of every device and confirm the solder joints are solid. They can also see and follow the traces on internal layers of multi-layer PCBs. Definitely one of those “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” types of situations, but very cool indeed.
Another piece of equipment that caught our eye was the Ash Inspex II Digital Microscope for visually inspecting printed circuit boards. A brief demonstration of this 120x magnifier highlighted that measurements could be easily made on screen. Different focal points made it easier to study tall or low-profile components, and Gerber files could be overlaid to make sure that the correct components were in position.
This was a very impressive piece of optical equipment targeted specifically to the electronics manufacturing industry. Oritech does have hobbyist level optical inspection cameras available too. Check out their website.
The team on the Chemtools stand explained that there was an industry standard for soldering called IPC, which relates to the Institute for Printed Circuits.
Their soldering training program came about as a way to help companies teach their staff how to do component level repair on mobile phones. Before this, the repair services you see in your local shopping centre would need to remove a faulty board and replace it with a replacement board if any of the components failed. They would then send the board to a third party to be repaired. Naturally, this is a hugely expensive and wasteful process. This specific need has been filled by Chemtools who now offer a 2-day course on fine pitch soldering techniques, which can allow even beginners to perform complex board level repairs using basic equipment.
Chemtool’s fully equipped training facility in Sydney offers the full range of IPC CIS Certification courses, and they also run IPC courses in Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane, Nowra, Perth, and New Zealand (Auckland and Christchurch). Courses start at a few hundred dollars.
3D PCB PrinterWWW.EMONA.COM.AU
You can now 3D print your own multi-layered PCBs with this amazing machine! Matt from Emona Instruments gave a very thorough keynote on the advances in 3D printed electronics. In it, he focused on three specific machines, which we will describe here.
Firstly, the Voltera with its extruded silver amalgam paste, which we described earlier.
Secondly, the Optomec, which is an aerosol inkjet 3D printer that uses compressed gas to deposit a very fine high conductive silver material, presumably suspended, in a binding agent directly onto a surface. This was demonstrated by showing a small plastic piece from a mobile phone which had the antenna 3D printed onto it using this machine. What became apparent upon seeing this piece, was that the printer did not simply operate in the X and Y planes but can rotate the part. It could wrap a trace around 5-axis, which was demonstrated by showing the printer printing material onto a golf ball. If this wasn’t impressive enough, the printer was also able to print onto many other types of materials, including insulators, which means it would be possible to print multi-layer traces directly onto the surface of an object, reducing weight, manufacturing steps, etc. Sure, this isn’t going to fit on a hobbyist’s budget, but it is very exciting what this amazing machine can do and where 3D printing in the professional sphere is heading.
Third to be discussed was from Nano Dimension, which was simply mind blowing. The company has demonstrated the ability to print 30 layer PCBs with this machine, however, they believe it’s possible to print up to 80 layers. Unlike the Voltera and Optomec, the Nano Dimension 3D printer does not print onto a separate substrate but rather prints the substrate and the conductive ink, making it a fully additive manufacturing process. The substrate is a dielectric which is cured, and the silver ink is thermally sintered on the completion of each layer. You can then print a second layer directly on top creating a dielectric layer with vias (for lack of a better word) printed in place for the multilayers. Nano Dimension claims that this process is 10-15 times faster than traditional board manufacturing processes, however, we suspect due to the cost of materials alone, these machines won’t be replacing the traditional PCBs anytime soon. These machines will, however, revolutionise the prototyping process, allowing companies to quickly and easily rapid prototype circuits before sending the final design to be manufactured via traditional methods.
Emona is an Australian distributor for Rigol test equipment. We were pleased to see the inexpensive DS1074Z-s oscilloscope proudly on display. For anyone who isn’t familiar, this is the big brother of the sub $400 2 channel Rigol DS1052.
The DS1074Z-S is a 4 channel 70MHz digital storage oscilloscope with a 25MHz 2 channel function generator built-in, for less than $1000 (or $700 without the function generator). The impressive specs include I2C, SPI and RS232 decoding. It also appears that some clever people on the EEVBlog forum have figured out how to upgrade/“hack” the scope to 100MHz and add more features in much the same way the DS1052 was famous for.
We caught up with Ian (pictured) and Renato on the Lintek stand.
Their manufacturing facility is based in Queanbeyan NSW, known as the “gateway to Canberra”. They can do short-form runs, like the one shown here, within a week! You supply the board file on a Monday and it will be dispatched on the following Thursday.
Having a local company that can produce quality PCB’s with a week turn around is pretty impressive here in Australia. More impressive is the fact that they can accommodate for small runs. If you’re keen to turn that prototype hat, shield or project into a reality and don’t want to wait weeks, then there are options here in Australia that can make it happen. Mini prototyping service starts from $290 (ex. GST)
HIGH QUALITY COMPONENTSWWW.APSINDUSTRIAL.COM.AU
The APS Industrial stand represented various brands of electronic components from well-known brands, such as Honeywell, flex, Pulse, and many more. Of note, was an impressive array of wireless antennas from LoRa PCB mount types to large multi-band antennas including one that did six bands in one.
A range of high-quality Lithium batteries was also on display that had worldwide certification so you could use the equipment or get a replacement battery from distributors worldwide to avoid any shipping issues.
What caught our eye was the tiny DC to DC converter modules that could output up to 7A, in small drop-in form factors. You could solder in one component and have a fully isolated stepped down DC voltage. On top of this, they had specialised DC-DC convertor ICs, such as the XC9281/82, which was a tiny 1.2mm x 1.2mm and can output 600mA @ 1.2V-3.6V from an input voltage of 2.5V-5.5V, at 90% efficiency. Naturally, as a switchmode regulator, the IC needs additional circuitry for correct operation but this is minimal with this device. The datasheet shows the typical application circuit having little more than input and output capacitors, and an inductor for energy storage.
One step up from here was the XC9280 with a maximum output of 3A peak @1.8V-7V from a 4.5V-18V input. This device can be seen attached to the development board in the photo shown above. This would have to be one of the smallest buck converter ICs rated to 3A on the market today at 2.8mm x 2.9mm. It’s coined as having a 92% efficiency. Unlike the XC9281, the bigger XC9280 needs a few more components with a voltage divider used to set the desired output voltage, and a capacitor in parallel with R1 of the voltage, selecting voltage divider to program the phase compensation. It’s also possible to adjust the soft start-up time using a capacitor across En/SS and ground.
A great range of genuine Arduino products was on show at the element14 booth.
We caught up with Massimo Sacchi from the Arduino team who was working on the stand. He showed us a few of the latest products, and also mentioned there was some exciting news to come in a few months, but of course, he couldn’t tell us!
Naturally, they had the entire Arduino MKR boards out on display. These boards are primarily aimed at the IoT market, however, one board, in particular, was pretty special. Arduino has the MKR Vidor 4000, which is a Cyclone 10 FPGA. An FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) is a hardware device consisting of many millions of logic gates. This is a massive leap for electronics hobbyists, as it gives the power of programmable hardware with the Arduino ease of use. You use software to physically connect these gates and, more importantly, rather than our usual examples of programming where the code runs sequentially line by line, in an FPGA the code runs every line at the same time. This means FPGA programs are quite a bit more complex but also many times faster. The MKR Vidor 4000 (Part no. 2917571) retails for $120.
Mektronics was displaying their range of Hakko soldering irons and some high-end inspection tools. They also had on their stand a compact 1080p inspection microscope with a built-in 5” display. This camera allows you to see in real-time without lag and at 500+ magnification. It also has an HDMI output allowing you to connect it to a much larger monitor. This would be very handy for reading part numbers on ICs when reverse engineering and inspecting solder joints, etc. For us, a great feature is its ability to take high-resolution snapshots and video, which is useful when providing documentation, especially when reporting on a failure/fault.
This microscope (part no. L010250) retails for $433.
We caught up with the team from Altronic Distribution, the wholesale arm of Altronics. The team exhibited just some of their extensive range of interconnects, switches, test and soldering equipment, service aids.
Their new solder fume extractor was on display, and certainly a product we wanted to add to our wish list. This desk mount arm pivots in three positions so the extractor can be positioned right where you need it. It features a long life fan, and uses active carbon filters. There is also a provision to connect an external duct. The Fume Extractor (Part no. T1297) retails for $99.