David Forbes was on his way home to Tucson, Arizona, after a family trip last summer when a policeman stopped him in the Detroit airport. The officer said he had received 50 panicked phone calls since Forbes had entered the building, and now his entire family had been marked for extra screening. The delay was inconvenient, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Forbes had 160 circuit boards and enough electronics to start a data center strapped to his body. What the authorities didn’t realize, though, was that all the equipment wasn’t dangerous—it was actually a wearable TV set.
If you’re looking to gin up a project that can interface with the world--say, a device that tells the weather using sensors--you’re probably going to need a microcontroller, a simple computer system on a circuit board that consists of a processor, memory and an input/output system. They are the centerpiece of many of my past PopSci projects, such as a desk clock that keeps superaccurate time by pulling in a signal broadcast from an atomic clock.
Let's say you have a problem that can be solved with some electronics and maybe even a microcontroller. You gather up your parts and prove the idea on a breadboard, a sort of blank canvas for prototyping projects. Then what? A common solution is to solder everything to a blank perforated circuit board, but that still leaves you with a fragile mess of wires that looks like a disaster and takes a long time to assemble. The better idea: get a circuit board professionally printed. Too spendy? Think again. I've had about 10 different boards printed for all sorts of projects ranging from a trampoline that shoots fireballs to much less complicated boards that spells text on my bicycle wheels. These circuits are still working great fours years later and didn't break my wallet. Follow the jump to see my tips for getting professional boards without breaking your wallet.