Changing the World of PCB Rapid Prototyping
Tony Tung is a recent graduate from Taiwan who has come up with a new way for PCB designers and makers to create breadboards using printed paper circuits. I caught up with Tony at the recent San Mateo Maker Faire and sat down with him to learn more about this project.
Barry Matties: Tony, tell me a little bit about who you are and where you come from.
Tony Tung: I come from Taiwan, and I’m from the National Taiwan University, where we do HCI research, human-computer interaction, and build a lot of rapid prototyping tools to help makers and designers do their work better.
Matties: Are you still in university?
Tung: I graduated last year.
Matties: You've already graduated, and now you're just helping in this research project?
Matties: Excellent. Is this your first trip to America?
Tung: No, but it is my first time coming to the Maker Faire.
Matties: What do you think of this Maker Faire?
Tung: Compared with Taipei's Maker Faire, it's very different. It's huge, and there are a lot of impressive works here. I hope I have time to take a look around.
Matties: Let's talk specifically about the technology that you're showing here. I understand you're changing the way that rapid prototyping for circuit boards is being done. Can you tell me about that?
Tung: The first time we used a lot of soldering, the normal breadboard approach, to do our prototype. We hate that, because it takes a lot of time for us. We wanted to change this procedure, so we thought about how we could redesign a breadboard. We thought that the printed circuit was the better solution for us, so we tried to follow some research projects about printed circuits.
Matties: When you talk about printed circuits, you're not talking making a physical printed circuit board in the traditional sense, are you?
Tung: No, we’re talking about printing a paper circuit.
Matties: The idea is you print a circuit on paper to make the connections for the breadboard?
Tung: Yes, for the breadboard. Because in research they use printed circuit paper, and then they solder or stick components on it, but that still doesn't save any time for makers. We think that if you use a breadboard with printed circuit paper that it’s a better way to do that.
Matties: The takeaway here is that you've actually separated the breadboard in half, into two pieces, and I see you have a fixed circuit board inside the breadboard?
Tung: Yes, because you need to make these breadboards to be as functional as a normal breadboard.
Matties: The bus is live, one way or the other. The paper printed circuit then creates the connections in-between where the components would be on a breadboard?
Matties: Now you're eliminating all the jumper wires, all the soldering that people might do, and it reduces the cycle time substantially. In terms of the design that you're actually printing, what sort of software do you use to print that design?
Tung: We use Fritzing, which is a circuit design tool used especially for breadboards. We built a plug-in for Fritzing, so you can download the breadboard schematic and then it will automatically transform into the printed circuit paper layout.
Matties: And you’re printing this out of a standard printer, an Epson or a Brother, which you can get at a local office supply store. Then you're using a conductive ink on the paper, which is also a standard ink that you can purchase?
Matties: Is the paper standard, as well?
Tung: It's a photo paper, because this type of conductive ink only works on photo paper.
Matties: Once it's printed, you lay it on top of the grid, and your circuits make the connections between the components. If you need to make an edit or a quick change, can you just go in and modify your design, re-print it, and put it back in?
Tung: Yes, and you can also just use jump wires.
Matties: It’s still possible to jump if you want, but you start with the basics. How much time do you think it saves on a job?
Tung: It depends on the circuit you design.
Matties: Let's say a job that would normally take a half-hour with the breadboard design, how much time would it take on your system?
Tung: If you can find the circuit online, you just need five minutes.
Matties: And if you have to design the circuit?
Tung: If you have to design the circuit, it depends on how familiar you are with the software.
Matties: If you're a designer, you can design it pretty quickly though, because you’ll pull from a tools library and put that in. This is very clever. Congratulations.
Tung: Thank you.
Matties: What's the intent with your product? Are you going to commercialize this and put it on the market?
Tung: We're thinking about it, maybe open source.
Matties: What about the clamshell case that you have? Is that something people will open source, or is that something they'll buy from you?
Tung: We open source the plastic case right now. We put it on Thingiverse, the platform that you can use to download 3D models.
Matties: Do you print this on your 3D printer?
Tung: Yes, the plastic.
Matties: Where do you get the rigid circuit board that’s inside?
Tung: We need to send the design to the factory.
Matties: The factory produces that, so someone who prints this would still have to purchase the circuit board?
Tung: Yes, or we will design the circuit board, so they can just order it.
Matties: So, the only real cost would be the circuit board?
Matties: Nice. Congratulations. You guys are changing the world. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time today.
Tung: Thank you.