DipTrace for home etching, gerber export, 3d views and milling outlines

The more time we spend with DipTrace, the more we like it, here at Nerd Towers.
We first came across it while designing PCBs for our miniature guitars last year – changing over from ExpressPCB because we needed to generate gerber files to have some circuit boards manufactured online.

It’s easy to use, has a massive library of components, but uses an approach similar to Eagle; when placing components in the schematic, you have to choose the “correct” component with the appropriate footprint while you’re drawing the schematic. We much prefer the ExpressPCB method: draw a schematic then link it to the PCB designer – so long as the number of pads in the PCB layout software matches the number of pins in the schematic, you can use pretty much any component footprint to represent any component in the schematic.

As a result, we still turn to ExpressPCB whenever we need to “knock out” a few boards for home etching.
But since we’ve had to design some more boards for manufacture (for a recent alarm clocks project) we’ve returned back to DipTrace to generate more gerbers.

And we’ve found that DipTrace has some pretty cool features – even for the homebrew enthusiast. Firstly, you can create homebrew boards easily and – using the ExpressPCB method – print to a PDF file using CutePDF and flip in Inkscape, reading for printing onto some press-n-peel.

Of course, DipTrace can export to Gerber (so the file(s) can be emailed for manufacture by a professional PCB fabricators). But it also has a few other handy export options.

We’ve already discovered the brilliant 3D view:

The great thing about this 3d generator is that you can place components so that they “hang off” the board. Not many tools let you do this. In the example above, we’ve created our audio board but cut the dimensions down, so that the SD card holder is fixed at one end. There’s no need to waste copper board under the rest of the sd card holder – not all PCB layout tools allow you to create a board outline smaller than the components on it!

As well as 3D, and creating toner-tranfer images, DipTrace supports exporting to DXF.
Why is this so impressive? Well, if you’ve a CNC router, you can get it to draw around the outside of each of your pads and traces:

Wow! Now that’s cool. Anyone with any experience of using Mach3 or similar CNC software knows that it’s relatively easy to get from a DXF drawing to some g-code which we can use to drive the CNC router and – rather than all that nasty etching with stinky chemicals – we could rout out the PCB board from a sheet of copper-clad board.

All these output options from the same PCB layout. DipTrace is looking like a really useful bit of kit. And perhaps something we should persevere with for a little while. After all, up to 500 pins, it’s FREE as well.

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