Introduction: Dead Bug Prototyping and Freeform Electronics

Picture of Dead Bug Prototyping and Freeform Electronics

Dead bug prototyping and freeform electronics are a way of building working electronic circuits, by soldering the parts directly together, or through wires instead of the traditional way of using a printed circuit board (PCB.)

Dead bug prototyping got its name because when you invert a IC, and bend the legs out, it looks like a dead bug. Sometimes you can make your whole circuit work just by soldering the parts directly to an IC, and the easy way to do it is to lay the chip upside down, bend the leads out and solder parts together. Sometimes people use many chips, and glue them upside down to a blank PCB, then build the circuitry from part to part.
This type of circuit is often a quick way to get going on a project, and is a good way to test stuff, before investing in printed circuit boards, which makes it useful in prototyping, or even for building small quantities, but its fairly labor intensive, often difficult to build, and ends up looking ugly.
The neat thing about building circuits without boards is that it removes the need for everything to be on a plane, making for more interesting looking 3D circuits, rather than 2D circuits. Geometry comes more into play this way, and the way parts are manufactured, the number of leads, how they are organized all limit, and shape the way the parts can fit together. Some parts have 2 axial leads, others may have 2 or more linear leads or dual in-line leads, while another may have leads in a radial fashion. Surface mount parts and through hole parts have different properties, but they can both work fine and can even be mixed in the same designs.

When I used to work building electronics, engineers would revise designs, which would cause changes in manufacturing. We would do things like clipping a lead on a part, solder a different part on to that one, or sometimes on top of another part. It was pretty common practice to piggyback memory modules or chips to make a bigger memory module or chip. This sort of thing is practical and viable in many useful ways. Its also can be aesthetically appealing, and interesting looking.

The purpose of this instructable isnt to show you how to do this, but rather that its a fun way to build interesting electronic projects, as well as a quick way to see if your thing works.

Step 1: Piggybacked Shift Registers

Picture of Piggybacked Shift Registers

Shift registers are component often used in digital circuits, in this case, im using 74HC595 shift registers, they are very popular among hobby electrics users. They are a serial to parallel device, you send it a series of data, it outputs in a parallel fashion. Serial parts work well for piggybacking, typically the outputs are parallel, and the input is chained from one chip to the next, with several leads in common. The leads that are common, can be soldered in a direct line, that makes things easy, the outputs are also in a direct line, which makes thing nice and easy. The data chain is a simple repeating connection between one chip and another. Fitting it together in a stack isnt usually all that much of a challenge, but it can be.

Im usually using shift registers with LEDs, which means they often output to resistors, which can complicate things, but it can also make for more interesting designs. Stacking is by no means the only way to do this. but its one of the more interesting ways, particularly because vertical, is an uncommon direction to build electronics. It also illustrates how the parts work together to make one big part, like a hotel with many floors and many rooms on each floor.

Step 2: LEDs

Picture of LEDs

LEDs are also an interesting proposition for freeform electronics. LED cubes often use this style of building circuits in 3D space.
LED also work well with radial patterns, like the RGB LEDs in a 9 LED flashlight (shown above), or in a ring, like the first picture.
They work nice in a linear design too, as you can also see in a couple images.

LEDs typically come with 2 leads, but RGB LEDs need more, typically 4 or 6 leads. The charliecube spire is only works because the part uses 4 leads, each common lead is also connected to the complimentary anode/cathode lead, which is why it only works with 4 RGB LEDs.


LED cubes typically use a common plane, and that plane also works as a physical structure that holds the shape of the cube together.

LEDs often work good for points, lines, matrices, and cubes.

My first instructable, an LED cube

https://www.instructables.com/id/4x4x4-LED-cube-upg...

I have another instructable about building an LED cube.
https://www.instructables.com/id/Charliecube-Charli...

A fiber optic display that used some freeform electronics for the LEDs.

https://www.instructables.com/id/Improve-fiberoptic...

Step 3: Quick and Dirty Prototype From Old Parts.

Picture of Quick and Dirty Prototype From Old Parts.

I needed a 3.3v power supply, to test running some LEDs and shift registers. I didnt want to run them at 5v, I wanted to see if I could get the voltage close to the LEDs forward voltage, to see if I could safely run LEDs with no current limiting resistor. Things didnt work out well, but building the test circuits went very well.

I started with a need for 3.3v, I dug though my pile of scrap parts and electonics, and found a promising looking voltage regulator, I looked it up, and sure enough, it was 3.3v. I took a couple minutes to look through the data sheet to read the specs, and found some sample circuits. I noted the components in the samples, and looks at the circuit board with the voltage regulator, all those same parts were nearby, so I removed those parts also. Then it was just a matter of putting the parts together in the right way, which I was able to do without a circuit board. The first photo shows where I found all the parts next to the completed regulated power supply.

The second photo shows how everything fits nicely together, and one of the output leads with a loop at the end for easy access.
The last photo shows the working circuit, including 8 RGB LEDs soldered to the shift registers on one side, and a thick wire on the other side of the LED. Except for the microcontroller there were no circuit boards used for this test project.

Step 4: Sometimes You Just Need a Little Thing to Solve a Problem.

Picture of Sometimes You Just Need a Little Thing to Solve a Problem.

I needed a voltage divider, which is a neat way to use 3 resistors to split voltage. I needed 3 resistors that were the same value, but I didnt have enough through hole parts that were all the same size. I found a little SMT resistor pack, and figured out how to make the same circuit, using one part as 3 parts, that made one working votlage spitter. This part was very delicate, i broke a few before I got one good one, and it only had to last long enough to test a few things, so it solved my problem quite well.

Step 5: Crystal CMoy Free Form Headphone Amplifier

Picture of Crystal CMoy Free Form Headphone Amplifier

Here are some excellent examples from other people. This first one is from another instructable. It ends up encased in clear resin. Im personally not to keen on stuff cast in resin, but I can see why he would need to do that here.

This is a particularly nice example, he goes to a lot of trouble to make each part fit with even spacing, consistent curves by using the same forming tool. He also does a good job forming parts without marring the surface, and solders the parts together without making a mess of the solder,

https://www.instructables.com/id/Crystal-cMoy-Free-...

Step 6: Arduino Skeleton

Picture of Arduino Skeleton

This one is an entire arduino uno done in freeform style.

This one doesnt have the artful craftsmaship that the last one had, but its still pretty awesome in that its rather complex, but yet all the wires seem to use the space very well, and mimic the way printed circuits are laid out.

http://make.kosakalab.com/arduino/obaka/project-7/...

Step 7: Little Wire Dead Bug Art

Picture of Little Wire Dead Bug Art

Here is an attiny based blinky light freeform design. Its nicely built.

http://dangerousprototypes.com/2012/10/08/little-w...

Step 8: Geeky Advent

Picture of Geeky Advent

This is a whole tiny microcoroller project in freefrom. Its not too complex, but it is interesting enough, and this little guy even includes its own power source, which just frees it up a little bit more than other examples.

http://tinkerlog.com/2009/12/12/geeky-advent/

Step 9: Atari Punk Console

Picture of Atari Punk Console

This one is a good example of how to quickly develop a prototype by just soldering the parts together.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dnny/sets/7215762215...

Step 10: 8 by 8 RGB Matrix

Picture of 8 by 8 RGB Matrix

This was a prototype that I built using 64 RGB LEDs, 6 shift register, and a a bunch of resistors. The Shift registers are set up in pairs, deadbug style. To get the wiring to work out, I had one chip upside down, the other right side up. The inside leads are the input/controls, the outside leads are the outputs. The LEDs are also a deadbug style, the LED wiring structrure holds everything togehter, but the LEDs are also hot glued into place.

The idea was to use the 64 LEDs as a display that shines on the wall or ceiling. Sadly, the LEDs dont work very well as individual projectors, The R,G, and B LEDs within a RGB LED dont shine on the same place, and they dont shine in a nice 8x8 matrix. I had high hopes for this project, but I just dont think that its going to work out. the way that I want. Maybe with different parts (like SMT parts with external lenses? but this way didnt really do it.

Even if the project didnt work the way that I wanted, electrically wit worked great and is an interesting structure of circuitry.


Step 11: LED Cubes

Picture of LED Cubes

LED cubes are inherently freeform designs, You can build them with just the LED leads soldered to one another, or you can use additional wires. Additional wires can be anything from a roll of copper or steel wire found at any hardware store, to hardened steel music wire or electronic test pins found at a hobby store or electronic supply store. Bus wire should work as good as any bailing wire you find at the hardware store, but the best is probably the hardened steel wires you may find called music wire.

These are all 4x4x4 RGB(multi-color) LED cubes, they work in different ways, but they all do essentially the same thing. Some use shift registers, or LED driver, others use no additional components, and a third style uses a minimal level of discreet components (20 transistors and 20 resistors.) The wiring for each type of cube is unique to each electrical design, and that wiring forms a kind of geometry that is also specific to each way of solving the problem of controlling many LEDs. The cubes architecture is relative to how the LEDs are controlled. The charliecube uses 16 spires, each spire has 4 wires. The other cubes work more in a planar fashion, The work by lighting up only 1 plane of LEDs at one time, My transistor cube breaks each plane up into 4 separate lines, and controls the lines individually, which makes it different than the planar ones, but they work the same kind of way, and because they work a little differently, they need to be wired a little differently.

Build a charliecube:

https://www.instructables.com/id/Charliecube-Charli...

Step 12: The Clock

Picture of The Clock

This is a last minute entry, Ive been looking at it since yesterday, and im blown away.

This project is so awesome in many many ways. This clock is made entirely from discreet parts. Nothing but Diodes, resistors, transistors, and LEDs. There are no ICs, no crystal, no input other than 12v, or buttons to control it. There are nearly 2,000 part, all soldered together to make this circuit work.


Instead of using a crystal for timing, like most clocks use, this one runs off the 60 cycle alternating current. It divides the 60 cycle in to 60 seconds, and uses decade counters and binary to decimal converters, no not the ICs that do that, but hand built circuits that do those functions. The 3 magnetic switches are for setting the time using magnets (not shown).

Look at this parts list:

1161 Diodes
340 Transistors

346 Resistors

60 Red LEDs

6 Magnetic switches

3 Dual digit displays

----
1916 Total number of parts.

I have made a few clocks, and im real partial to mixing the radial design with the 7 segments like shown here, but the real star is all those hand built circuits working together. He says it took him 3 years to design it, and hundreds of hours to build it.

Read all about it, and the other crazy freeform clock he made at:

http://techno-logic-art.com/clock.htm

Comments

rendy404 (author)2016-06-26

thanks

ant0ny (author)2015-05-14

My LED cube in Freeform style:

HippyNerd (author)ant0ny2015-05-14

That is very impressive. Do you have more infro about it? A website or instructable or something maybe?

ant0ny (author)HippyNerd2015-05-15

Thank you for rating :) This cube was made 3 years ago. Before its I was made another one for traditional technology - PCB, cover (slim box) for controller. Circuit, design and firmware for controller I was take from russian forum http://roboforum.ru/forum10/topic9342.html

When I saw the creation of Kimio Kosaka http://make.kosakalab.com/arduino/obaka/project-7/index_en.html I had a great desire to do something like! :)

I did the photo process to make my own instructable :( The are only textual description of the manufacturing process http://roboforum.ru/forum10/topic9342-60.html#p229898 but russian.

In short: I was design PCB on 4 (or 5) layers (ground the lowest), printed on paper separately layers and took a pack of metal paper clips. Then I straightened and bent paper clips, applying to the printed image. Soldering places on wires I tinnyng using orthophosphoric acid and much washing with soap and water to avoid rusted, then dried. I first soldered base frame - electrical ground for circuit. Then solder other layers of wires and electronic components. Led layers I soldered separatelly on the plywood template with holes and gathered together. Then mount to the controller.

On the first photo controller without leds. Sorry, poor quality.

That`s all.

There will be questions - ask :)

HippyNerd (author)ant0ny2015-05-15

I agree, those photos are terrible, I would like to see better pictures. The layout and workmanship looks terrific, very clean and nice to look at.
I would like to include them in another instructable, when I can get around to putting together some new example, and this is exactly what im looking for.

St Stephen (author)2015-03-07

Very cool, can I ask you a question, when you piggy back memory chips how do you let the CPU address the additional memory banks? Thanks in advance.

HippyNerd (author)St Stephen2015-03-08

I never really did much with those computers. I think I did do some basic testing, and that probably did include memory checks, but I dont remember doing any software changes to enable higher amounts of memory. It may be that we had a jumper or mod wire that enabled larger memory size?
I was working in prototyping, and repair, not engineering, and we often didnt get to see the final product.

St Stephen (author)HippyNerd2015-03-08

Thanks for your reply I will do some google research on this subject. Once again,you are creating working electronic art, awesome! Thx

steinie44 (author)2015-02-05

I used to do this to upgrade the amount of memory on Atari Computers 800XL to 256K by stacking the memory chips.

HippyNerd (author)steinie442015-02-06

I am guessing you are talking about piggybacking?

steinie44 (author)HippyNerd2015-02-07

Yes, like step 1. Only with memory chips.

HippyNerd (author)steinie442015-02-07

Yeah, I used to piggyback ram chips/boards too, and I applied that to the shift registers, which worked out really well. I did it for essentially the same reason that we build hi-rise buildings, more usable space on a smaller footprint. When I think about how they work, that also reminds me of something like a hotel with many floors too. The similarities are interesting.

Arezus (author)2015-01-22

Great circuits, I've made a 120A voltage regulator for my motorcycle, those are three phase 40A bridges that get very hot, original regulator burns out very often, this circuit is stable for a year for now and stays almost cold because of huge power reserve, now it moved under the seat.

CatalinRO (author)Arezus2015-01-22

That looks very nice! Can be this useful for an old Africa Twin? There is the same problem: it gets very hot and it will be damaged in the end, buying new one solves the issue if you are close to a shop, if you are in the middle of nowhere, you need a more reliable one. Can you you please share a schematic or any advices on how to build a similar one? Does it contain regular electronic components? Thank you!

Arezus (author)CatalinRO2015-01-23

Some more people asked me the same, I'll make an archive with schemes and elements list and photos that I'll be able to find and send to you.

I made this circuit for Honda X4, but it worked well on CBR and other ones that have three phases coming out of generator and require two pluses and two minuses for motorcycle circuits. I made two pluses and minuses to lower the load on wires, but Honda X4 has 4-terminal connector, so it fit perfectly.

Give me a day or three to gather all =)

BrianG6 (author)Arezus2015-01-25

I'd like that link too.

Arezus (author)BrianG62015-02-02

https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-make-a-reliable-motorcycle-voltage-regulato

scooby56 (author)Arezus2015-01-23

Cool Arezus! May I ask - how did you weatherproof the circuit? i.e is that hot glue?

Arezus (author)scooby562015-01-23

No, this is epoxy compound. It's something between glass and hard plastic when it's hardened. It's pretty stable to vibration and can handle soft direct hits with the hammer, not speaking about weather, sand, petrol, oil and other. When it reacts after mixing two components it gets pretty hot due to chemical reaction and gets even to the smolest gaps. In Ukraine it is selled in ugly package which contains the epoxy tar and hardener. They need mixed together and spilled to the needed form. In 24h it's like transparent concrete.

HippyNerd (author)Arezus2015-01-22

Thats pretty cool. You did a nice job with the photos too.

throbscottle (author)HippyNerd2015-01-22

I think I am in love with your regulator. What a gorgeous build :)

WickedN (author)2015-01-25

That's pretty cool. Though I'd love the instructable for how to go about doing this. I've tried doing things like this and when ever you need to add another part, all the parts disconnect because the solder was holding things in place until it reflowed. So information on how to do this and keep parts still while adding connections would be much appreciated. Also, some chips and parts are heat sensitive. I try to clamp or clip a tool to act like a heat sink between the part and the solder joint. Curious if that consideration is used while making these free form solder joints. Thanks! :)

HippyNerd (author)WickedN2015-01-27

I also wrote this one about soldering, it might be helpful.

https://www.instructables.com/id/Soldering-Electronics/

HippyNerd (author)WickedN2015-01-25

I rarely have an issue where the whole part is hot enough to melt solder. When im soldering, I rarely have the iron on a single lead for more than 2 seconds. I also like a very hot iron, I get the heat in and out as fast as possible. I have used heat sinks and tweezers as heat sinks for doing wiring, but never for electronic parts.
If you have parts that are particularly sensative, then you should probably use a socket instead, most of the parts that I use dont need any special treatment.
Sometimes it may help to bend and clip your parts in advance, Sometimes you can take advantage of surface tension, and the parts pull themselves together while the solder is a liquid.

CatalinRO (author)2015-01-25

Thanks, there is no rush!

nancyjohns (author)2015-01-23

groovy?!?!

HippyNerd (author)nancyjohns2015-01-23

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmI3pJHIT90

Derek Lewis (author)2015-01-22

I made a small kit a while ago that used this approach.

http://www.surprisingedge.com/AnnoyATtiny85/

http://www.surprisingedge.com/AnnoyATtiny85/images...

HippyNerd (author)Derek Lewis2015-01-23

Neat, what does it do?

Derek Lewis (author)HippyNerd2015-01-23

It's for pranks, it just beeps at random intervals.

bhttnzr (author)2015-01-22

i made it!

HippyNerd (author)bhttnzr2015-01-23

Cool, I like the LED matrices, those are nice.

scientificshiv (author)2015-01-22

This is working electronic Art man...........keep it up !!!

HippyNerd (author)scientificshiv2015-01-23

Thank you, Im glad you enjoy it. I do too!

organicelectrics (author)2015-01-22

Very cool, I'm a big fan of creating 3D circuits. It just seems like a more creative and efficient use of space. Thank you for posting all these examples.

You are welcome.

NoseyNick (author)2015-01-23

That Arduino skeleton is a work of art!

thegrendel (author)2015-01-22

We used to call it "haywiring."

throbscottle (author)2015-01-22

Loving the artistry in these builds. Those thick busses remind me of old chassis built equipment, but these are done for show :) Never had much luck with dead-bug myself, but this 'ible is quite motivating!

HippyNerd (author)throbscottle2015-01-22

Thank you

LesB (author)2015-01-22

Back when I worked in an aerospace electronics lab, a manager from another department came and requested that I build a one-IC circuit, dead bug style for some experiment his department was doing.

So I did build it as requested. Then months later said manager came to me and thanked me, saying that this experiment came off very well in the space shuttle. Egad, the space shuttle! I had no idea. Had I known, I'd have been sure to be extra careful about cold solder joints and general structural integrity. But all's well that ends well!

In retrospect I wish I had asked him if it were possible for me to get the circuit back, which I would have framed, or something.

My most memorable dead bug circuit!

HippyNerd (author)LesB2015-01-22

Thats a pretty groovy story. Its a shame that you dont have pictures to go with it.

rducette (author)2015-01-22

Many thanks, this kind of creative thinking helps foster even more such inspirational thought... Kudos!

HippyNerd (author)rducette2015-01-22

Thank you. I was hoping others would be inspired to make their own groovy things.

askjerry (author)2015-01-22

Ok... that's just effing cool.

I've seen a ton of circuits... but these are ART that happens to work as a circuit...

To you... I tip my hat!!!

this is getting shared at the ATX Hackerspace, and the Austin Robot Group too!

HippyNerd (author)askjerry2015-01-22

Thank you.
Yeah, its gotta work, thats the primary function!
I hope you all are inspired to make your own cool stuff too.

billbillt (author)2015-01-22

This is the coolest stuff I have ever seen!... Great!!...

HippyNerd (author)billbillt2015-01-22

Thank you

bladero (author)2015-01-22

Very nice, after you finish them you can cast them into resin or even wax, that will make those projects functional art pieces.

HippyNerd (author)bladero2015-01-22

Ive never cast resin before, maybe I should try it.

Someone asked me for help buildinga cube, and they said that they were going to cast it in something, but I never heard back on how that went.

About This Instructable

75,521views

537favorites

Add instructable to: