ElectronicsWeekly and RS components have contacted me earlier this year to design a trophy to be awarded to the 29 winners of the Bright Sparks 2017 programme at the beginning of May. This is a first in what will become an annual event.
It was a given that the trophy would be made of circuit board material since this is what I specialise in. The brief was completely open except for a unit cost. More generally, EW and RS were interested in something that stands out from typical trophies one can get anywhere. For me, the challenge was to create an item that naturally sits on an engineer's desk and that is the least likely to be forgotten in a drawer. Moreover, I wanted this trophy to spark a conversation about creativity in engineering generally, and at the engineer's workplace.
Already during the initial phone call with EW I knew that some elements of circuit board manufacturing could fit well here: ENIG (gold) finish, edge plating, and detachable panelised elements. Initially I sketched concepts where the three pieces came as a panel — the main body and two smaller stand pieces that will slot into the main piece, and then soldered in place by the recipients. This would have given them an active part in assembling the trophy, an experience that they could never have with a traditional trophy.
I viewed the trophy itself as a stand for a 'gold' medal that could be detached and be placed back. So while the trophy as a whole will attract attention from afar, the medal itself is the centrepiece.
A typical trophy would be quite heavy. Weight is sometimes how we intuitively associate value with. The finished article needed to weigh around 300g, and for that I knew that I needed to add something heavy to the piece, as the circuit board a alone (about 15cm in diameter) would only weigh about 100g, even with the use of 2.4mm thick circuit board.
I started looking at stainless steel backing. Together with screws and nuts — which gave the piece some depth and an industrial look — I could reach 300g.
At this point I re-evaluated the 'delivery-as-a-panel' concept as it
- would make it hard to display, like they did at the event;
- would need to come with some instructions;
- may never be assembled; or
- may be assembled poorly.
I also realised that with the metal backing and a thick bracket I could both have the weight I wanted, lower the centre of gravity for better stability, and create a robust construction without soldering. That sounded good.
By coincidence, we had our first Boldport Club meetup in London just when I was finalising the outline of the circuit board. There, Mike Harrison mentioned — without knowing about this project — that he uses a 'trick' where he adds ridges to slots that could be easily filed away if the dimension isn't quite right. Since I had only one go at this I adopted this idea. It turned out to be quite helpful as it allows very fine adjustment during assembly, as there is some tolerances in PCB outline routing.
Once I had the final outline of the circuit board my friends at Aeguana, with whom I share an office, helped me with modelling the trophy and generating the files for a metal fabricator.
For PCB fabrication I chose Garner Osbourne. They are a UK manufacturer and I've been impressed with their top quality PCBs in the past. I knew that they do 'edge plating', which is something that I wanted to use in my previous designs but never had a chance to. ('Edge plating' can mean several things; here it's carefully routing through plated holes to leave finished copper on the edges of the PCB.) This was a good opportunity to both work with them and gain experience with this manufacturing technique. It was very helpful to have a direct line with their technical staff to make sure that I designed the board correctly for their maunfacturing process.
My aim with the design itself was to use elements that I would otherwise use with a functional circuit. There are pads, tracks, plated holes, and a hatched pattern that's called 'thieving' (this more evenly distributes copper on the board for the plating process). The exposed and covered tracks connected to the pads on the edges is meant to look like a network switch. The medal is made with the reverse of exposed copper and soldermask as one would normally expect, using the soldermask as a colour accent over gold. I've used this technique before for the 'tiny engineer superhero Emergency kit'.
I delivered the trophies under budget and on time, which is always a nice outcome for all involved. The event took place in early May at the Houses of Parliament in London and I understand that the recipients liked what they've received. I wish them the best and I sincerely hope that they do not put the trophy in a drawer any time soon!