For Easy Prototyping, Surf’s Up

These "surfboards" make surface-mount prototyping "boardacious," dude

If you’ve done a fair amount of electronics circuit building, then you probably dread prototyping. You know prototyping: that point where you take your “perfect” circuit design from paper and transfer it to an initial hardware mockup. Typically, you have three basic choices in this matter, each with its own problem.

Your first choice in circuit prototyping is to lay out your design on a modular breadboard. The strongest virtue of this choice is the elimination of soldering — all connections are built into the breadboard. Unfortunately, breadboards are bulky and unable to handle surface-mount device (SMD) designs.

Following closely on the heels of breadboard prototyping, your second choice is perfboard layout. Once again, most perfboards are unable to accommodate SMD circuit designs. Plus, the point-to-point wiring needed for connecting the components can be a daunting task.

Which leads us to your final choice for circuit prototyping: custom printed circuit board (PCB) fabrication. Whether you roll your own PCB with DIY masks and etch kits, or hire a fab house to create a custom PCB, time will be your enemy. Fab houses can take upwards of one month for delivery of a finished board (unless you’re willing to pay extra for faster service), and making your own PCB can be fraught with frustrating failures and delays which can take days to weeks to solve.

Granted, PCBs can handle SMD circuit designs, but you will have to convert your schematic design into a PCB template and you should be prepared for a possibly large financial investment. If you go the DIY route, copper-clad boards, etchants, transfer films, and drill bits can all add up very fast. Likewise, many fab houses charge setup and postage fees in addition to a per-square-inch cost for creating the PCB itself.

So what’s a poor circuit designer to do? Well, I feel your pain. One of my constant challenges is trying to devise/create/locate a prototyping concept that satisfies three key requirements:

1. Fast. I want to be able to take my schematic straight to a prototype without needless conversion, wiring, and fabrication.
2. Fun. Ideally, this prototyping solution should be suitable for a beginner to use. No steep learning curve; just solder the components and GO!
3. Cheap. A prototype should never cost more than the components. Oh, and did I say this solution should be cheap?

Well, this ideal solution might finally be at hand. A tasty selection of SMD breadboard products is available from Capital Advanced Technologies. They’re called Surfboards®. And they are fast, fun, and CHEAP!

Ranging from $1.50 to $5, Surfboards are able to handle a wide variety of SMD components — from discrete components (e.g., resistors, capacitors, etc.) to complex SMD ICs. Even better, most Surfboards route these SMD components to an industry-standard inline SIP header for easy installation into larger through-hole prototype circuits and breadboards.

Here’s how it works:

First, locate a Surfboard (or Surfboards) that can handle your SMD circuit design. There are over 30 basic patterns and layouts to choose from, some with SIP headers and some without. Next, attach your SMD components. Use careful soldering and liquid flux for this stage in your circuit prototyping. Finally, connect your Surfboard to a power source (along with your circuit’s required inputs/outputs) and give your design a whirl. By using Surfboards, I have been able to whip up a great-looking prototype in a matter of minutes with only a $2 investment (exclusive of component cost).

If you’re looking to expand your Surfboard’s prototyping concept, Capital Advanced Technologies also has a product line of SIP breadboards (these are solder breadboards, NOT solderless breadboards) called UNI-SIP that can assemble several Surfboards into larger, more complex circuits.

You can order Surfboards from many distributors, including DigiKey.

Here are some examples:

6405 5-pin SIP $1.93

9161 14-16-pin SOIC $2.04

6908 8-pin SIP w/Bus $2.51

9082 8-pin SOIC + discrete components $4.11

If your circuit design requirements are flexible, these Surfboards can easily turn your prototyping into a surfing safari.