Category: Soft Circuits

Direct-to-PCB laser printing

“Also, contrary to popular belief, there’s no issue with laser printing on a conductive surface.” – from here.

I’ve seen this in operation at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. There, the flexible/soft robotics lab uses copper tape on plastic substrate to make PCBs, sticks them to a sheet of paper, and runs it through a totally-normal, unhacked laser printer. Copper tape is probably thinner than PCB copper, so it ends up not sinking too much heat away from the fuser. The resulting PCBs can be etched right out of the printer, with no ironing step in the middle.

I have to hit a hardware store at some point this week, perhaps I’ll be able to get copper tape there.

Touch and pressure sensing with the Arduino

A friend of mine is working on a device that requires multiple soft fabric pressure sensors over a volume approximately equivalent to a human arm. I have more Arduino experience than her, so I’m helping out with the electronic implementation details.

Our first attempt was to examine some commercial force-sensing resistors. These consist of a plastic layer with a pattern of interleaved contacts printed on it, and a layer of carbon-impregnated rubbery material over the contacts. The more pressure there is on the rubber, the more it touches the contacts and the lower its resistance becomes. These devices are very stable, yielding repeatable resistance measurements with repeated contacts. Unfortunately, they are of a fixed size, and cannot be cut or reshaped. They also are flexible, but not exactly soft.

Back of a set of force sensitive resistors, showing contacts

After discarding that approach, we tried making our own force sensitive resistors out of the conductive foam from IC packaging. This works, but has a couple of problems. The first is that the resulting device doesn’t have a simple response to force. Its resistance goes down when pressed, and goes back up when released, but it doesn’t always return to the same values, and the resulting sensor data is noisy. We also don’t have a good source for a lot of IC packaging foam.

Most recently, we’ve tried making a pressure sensor based on a capacitor. The Arduino CapSense library provides a simple way to turn two pins of an Arduino into a capacitance sensor. One plate of the capacitor is a sheet of conductive material, the other plate is the user, and is effectively connected to ground (or at least “away” as charges can leave the circuit that way). The page notes that you can use the capacitive sensing pad, covered with an insulator, as a pressure sensor with an approximately logarithmic response.

However, it also notes that putting a ground plane under the touch sensor makes the results more stable. Instead of doing that, I put down the sensing plate, made of copper-coated nylon, two layers of soft interfacing (A sewing material kind of like a sheet of stuffed toy stuffing) and a ground plate made of silver-coated spandex over the interfacing. Pressing on the ground pad compresses the interfacing and brings the ground plate closer to the sensing plate, increasing the capacitance, and registering as pressure to the sensor. Because the upper/interactive surface is the ground plate, it shields the sensing plate, so the capacitive pressure sensor does not also act as a proximity sensor and trigger before it is touched.

I taped the bottom layer down to my desk, and hooked a clip lead to it. This lead goes to pin 2 of my Arduino.
Bottom layer of fabric pressure sensor
Then I put two layers of interfacing on top.
Middle layer of fabric pressure sensor
Then I put the ground layer on top. This is connected to a clip lead that goes to a ground connection on the Arduino.
Top layer of fabric pressure sensor

In the finished device, there will probably be a stuffed fabric tube with rings of conductive fabric around it as sensors, surrounded by a layer of interfacing, and then by a conductive grounded layer. There will also likely be an outer layer of fabric to protect and decorate the whole thing. In order to determine if this is a good way to build the thing, I intend to use the technique to make a stuffed toy that can detect squeezing.

This is the code I used to read the values from the sensor:


 * CapitiveSense Library Demo Sketch
 * Paul Badger 2008
 * Modified by Abe Shultz 2012
 * Uses a high value resistor e.g. 10 megohm between send pin and receive pin
 * Resistor effects sensitivity, experiment with values, 50 kilohm - 50 megohm.
 * Larger resistor values yield larger sensor values.
 * Receive pin is the sensor pin - try different amounts of foil/metal on this pin
 * Best results are obtained if sensor foil and wire is covered with an insulator
 * such as paper or plastic sheet

CapSense cs_4_2= CapSense(4,2);        // 1 megohm resistor between pins 4 & 2, pin 2 is sensor pin

void setup()

void loop()
    long start = millis();
    long total1 =  cs_4_2.capSense(30);

    Serial.print(millis() - start);        // check on performance in milliseconds
    Serial.print("t");                    // tab character for debug window spacing

    Serial.println(total1);                // print sensor output 1

    delay(10);                             // arbitrary delay to limit data to serial port