Can GlowForge be used to etch PCBs?

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#1

I can see that it could be useful when prototyping circuit boards, but I don’t know about the safety of doing so (or even if it’s possible).


Etching PCB (Copper Clad)
#2

The copper layer of 1/2 ounce copper board is 0.7mil. I’m not sure how deep an etch is on metal? In particular, copper.

What would be the ‘safety’ issue trying to etch away part of a thin layer of copper? Could this damage the laser? The copper is reflective.


#3

My safety concern is twofold: firstly, could the reflective metal potentially damage the laser (or other parts of the product)? Secondly, what about cutting through the board in order to make space for through-hole components? Would that generate any dangerous by-products?


#4

We’ve done a bit of research but no applied tests - it’s unlikely Glowforge will do well for this. You can cut or etch masks and do a resist method, but your best bet is a different device. We’re big fans of the team at Othermill; they specialize in that. We definitely don’t want you to get a Glowforge if it’s not going to work for you.


#5

Thanks Dan! I was asking for a friend who was thinking of getting one. I have no PCB plans myself, though it would have been a nice bonus :smile:


#6

Well, I already pre-ordered a Pro version, but not specifically for this purpose… however, I’m just looking at other ways it ‘could’ be used.

I scrapped up an article on laser cutting holes in FR4. That part seems like it would be quite doable, but the laser was a different wavelength.

https://www.coherent.com/Applications/index.cfm?fuseaction=forms.AppLevel2&AppLevel2ID=118

Maybe one approach would be:

  • put down a resist
  • etch away the resist using the laser, which could give fine line control.
  • etch the copper chemically
  • if we were lucky, ‘drill’ the holes and vias with the laser. Now that would be cool.

#7

I have seen people do exactly this on a pretty high end laser cutter at our local makerspace - using simple flat black spray paint - then etch away with laser. It worked really well.


#8

Super smart! We’ll have to give this a try at the office sometime.


#9

Hi Dan. Has the GlowForge team had a chance to try this method? If successful, this would enable yet another great use case for the GlowForge.


#10

We haven’t tried using engraving resist + etching to make PCBs, but it’s a well tested technique on other 40w lasers so you can expect it to work well on a Glowforge.


#11

Check this out… How I use a 40W Laser and a ShopBot to make PCB Prototypes

Looks like he made these with a 40W CO2 laser. So it sounds like this is more than doable on a Glowforge. I for one surely hope so. I’d rather spin boards at home in minutes that wait 2 weeks for OSH Park.


#12

Wow, those are great results, I’ll have to give that process a shot next time I’m home-making a PCB. Especially love that there is “soldermask” - might make doing QFNs & 0402s a possibility :smile:


#13

It had been a while since I had read the beginning of this conversation, was a little confused at first, but scrolled to the top and reread it. It’s funny how different acronyms are used In different jobs. In my line of work PCB is polychlorinated biphenyls not printed circuit board. Could get confusing at a electronic/electrician dinner party lol.


#14

I found that LPKF Has a line of lasers for building prototypes. These appear to cut the copper. I was not able to find any specs on laser wattage. Here is a link:

http://www.lpkfusa.com/products/pcb_prototyping/machines/protolaser_s4/

I wonder how they are accomplishing this, other than maybe just a higher power laser?

@dan - any thoughts?


#15

Looks like they use diode-based lasers, not Co2 lasers. Different tech.

As for cutting metal:

"The ProtoLaser S4 can cut and drill rigid or flexible substrates efficiently with thicknesses of up to ~1mm; "

~1mm is great for thin circuit boards, but you aren’t gonna be cutting anything particularly thick with a diode laser AFAIK.


#16

We have one at work that I use occasionally. @jbv is correct, its a diode laser. I was laser etching nickel platted copper. We used ~5W and maxed out the speed; we had to do that because it would ablate too much nickel and go to the copper if we didn’t.

FYI, it uses an optical alignment system and fiducials to get its positioning.


#17

@elsman18, How can you tell the difference between a chemist and a plumber? Ask them to pronounce “unionized.”


#18

Lol :joy:


#19

So, does this mean you could edge nickle plated copper with a glow-forge? I’m less concerned about the drills to be honest… I’d find an alternative for that if I could get the wiring done.