A ProtoMat’s Long History

1. Initial contact
My “first contact” with an LPKF milling machine was in 1994. When I came to Elmos as a student, it was already there: an LPKF HI-P 101 Automill circuit board milling machine with automated tool changer. Because electronics was my hobby and etching circuit boards was practically an everyday occurrence for me, I was thrilled to see a circuit board milling machine. But the best thing was that after a short induction, I was allowed on it. (To have something like this at home…)


2. The caveman days
From today’s perspective, we were milling like “cavemen” back then. The operating system was DOS. The software was supplied on 5¼-inch floppy disks. My colleague wrote a batch file, with which he could compile several work steps. To shorten the machine time, he also wrote a sorting routine that optimized the tool paths. The computer time for isolation milling at that time was about 30 minutes for medium-sized projects (such as Europe card format projects). After that you had a data set with which you went to the machine and milled “blindly.” There was no possibility to perform a check or make corrections. All work steps were text based. We didn’t know any better – it was simply the state of the art, and it worked very well.


3. The epiphany
At the end of the 1990s I bought the CircuitCAM program (with BoardMaster) for Elmos because it represented a quantum leap. It ran under Windows and had a graphical progress indicator. Individual conductive traces could also be remilled with it. The milling operation could be stopped and then continued the next day. The machine was in operation at Elmos for many hours a day after that – for many years. Four departments made good use of it. Small repairs were necessary from time to time, but the machine basically ran without any Page 3/4 | Story of an LPKF Milling Machine LPKF Laser & Electronics AG, 2021problems until 2008. To this day, I can still find circuit boards in lab drawers, some of which are still in use.


4. The “dark” ages
The machine broke down in 2008. Over the course of many years, some mechanical parts had become worn, the electronics defective, and spare parts scarce. I was broken. Repair was too expensive, or not possible, and, in light of the new QFN housings for our products, the benefit was questionable for Elmos. The machine was taken out of service and stood around gathering dust.


5. The comeback
In 2010 I took over the completely defective machine from Elmos AG. Because my enthusiasm for this great and robust machine had not waned a bit, I set myself the goal of getting the machine functioning again. But I wanted to retain its original condition. Repair of the electronics was easy for the “old” technology. Thanks to eBay, it was also possible to buy the mechanical parts. After half a year, the completely disassembled mechanical system was repaired and fully functional again. I also received the kind support of two LPKF employees, who provided information to make the restoration much easier for me. My sons (aged 10 and 7 at the time) also helped.


6. Current status
I have now been using the machine in its original condition privately for circuit board milling for more than 10 years. Data conversion can now be done with a single click of a mouse and takes just a few seconds on modern computers, even for complex boards! To this day, I am thrilled with the precision with which this machine, which by now is 30 years old, works. It seems to be “indestructible”! The LPKF toolchain from 2001 can compete with modern systems to this day. Programs and operating systems come and go – but the LPKF machine remains! It is timeless!


Question: What’s better than an LPKF milling machine?
Answer: Two LPKF milling machines


I was so satisfied with this robust LPKF technology that in 2012 I bought a (used) LPKF milling machine (HI-P 101) – unfortunately, without an automated tool changer. It was in really bad condition when my son and I picked it up. Mechanical system defective, PCBs missing… First, I repaired the machine so that it could mill circuit boards again. This was easy because I could copy the missing PCBs from my Automill and mill them with my working machine. Then I dismantled the original portal, packed it well, replaced it with my own design, and placed a grooved plate on the LPKF plate. I designed the conversion in such a way as to be able to reconstruct the original LPKF circuit board milling machine within a few minutes. This machine has now become a precision portal milling machine that I also use to mill nonferrous metals and even wood. To do this, I still use the Jäger spindle used back then by LPKF; I had it completely overhauled by Jäger.


Both machines are in TOP condition and have excellent precision. When restoring the HI-P 101 Automill, I discovered mechanics as a hobby (besides electronics) and am very happy about that. My two sons spent a lot of time helping me in the basement at that time. They grew up with these LPKF machines and have milled quite a few things with them – and their occupational aspirations currently lie between electronics engineering and mechanical engineering. I am going to try to keep this robust LPKF technology alive in its original condition as long as I can. To be on the safe side, I read out the programmable ICs in the electronics in 2010 and saved the contents so that I could program a new IC at any time. I think this is a story that’s not history yet (… and if it’s well maintained, then it will still be milling in the future!).


Peter Glatzel

LPKF PCB Development Systems Take a Leap Forward

This last year has proven independent product development, rapid PCB prototype verification and advanced research applications are more important now than ever before.


Additional capabilities are now possible with new system advances to meet the latest challenges. Medical devices and wireless biosensors are now smaller and more powerful. Improvements continue to unfold with high-speed communication including 5G and higher bandwidths. Shortened time to market can also be achieved during a year when outsource delays became expected or even “acceptable.”


The LPKF ProtoMat mechanical PCB milling options are now highly automated and more precise than ever before allowing for quick turn development within your own lab with little user interaction. An engineer has even more freedom to complete their daily activities while the machines deliver prototypes with high precision traces down to 4 mil (100µm) and in only a matter of minutes.


The new features include automated tool cut depth setting, camera and sensor verified automatic tool exchanges, and precise project alignment using a high-resolution fiducial camera. An engineer can now run the system unattended while working on other tasks saving the company time and money while accomplishing more. 


A lower cost entry level system is also available allowing for PCB milling at home or in a small office with the same high precision alignment and high-quality milling.  


It doesn’t stop there.


Direct laser processing with the latest LPKF ProtoLaser models has proven to allow unmatched PCB development quality and speed. Fine pitch traces and gaps down to 1 mil (25µm) are common and even smaller with the new ProtoLaser R4 picosecond laser. 


Challenging and more sensitive materials are also easily processed including various flex circuit substrates, fired ceramics, piezoceramics and new laminated substrates developed for microwave/EHF projects. The finished board performance matches simulation nearly perfectly making a ProtoLaser ideal for high mix production-on-demand processing small and medium batch. 


The patented Hatch & Heat delamination laser processing feature is included on each system including the new benchtop ProtoLaser ST. This unique direct laser etching process quickly removes metal on laminated and micro-clad PCB substrates while limiting any heat effect to the substrate.


Our most advanced 355 nm UV laser source on the ProtoLaser U4 and picosecond source on the new ProtoLaser R4 allow for direct ablation processing thin film and thick film metal removal. This also enables controlled pocketing on ceramics, plastics and even woven or Teflon/PTFE substrates. 


Updated LPKF CircuitPro PL software and user-friendly controls help projects go from design to completion without chemical etch of any kind. The software also allows an operator to adjust the laser travel speed, pulse frequency, repetitions, power and beam or pulse overlap to dial in new settings as additional or new materials are needed. These settings are saved within the tool library adding to the common settings included by LPKF for FR4 or PTFE laminated substrates, polyimide cutting, solder mask skiving and processing of fired ceramic materials.


For nearly 45 years, LPKF has developed high precision milling and laser systems to avoid painful outsourcing delays which cause unexpected cost increases and extend the time to market. Added delays can make it difficult to meet the demands of important development cycles, contract deadlines and overextend approved budgets. However, the latest LPKF ProtoMat and ProtoLaser units allow multiple design iterations in less time than it takes to prepare and send a design to an outside service. 


This improvement to a PCB prototyping process in-house is often a necessity to ensure Government contract awards are secured and project completion meets required deadlines.


Overcoming challenges quickly and discovering new capabilities are synonymous with high quality engineering. The latest LPKF systems help meet that challenge and ensure an engineer has the right tools for the job.


Development of a High-End Phono Preamp

Isolation milling improves the playback of vinyl records. 

Despite the dominance of digitally recordings, sales of vinyl records are making a comeback and have steadily risen over the last 15 years. However, enjoying vinyl isn’t as simple as plugging a turntable into a sound system. That’s because the analog signal needs significant amplification, which it gets from an audio device known as a phono preamplifier (“phono preamp,” for short).

And thanks to the state-of-the-art LPKF ProtoMatS64 circuit board plotter, phono preamp manufacturers can dramatically shorten production time, putting perfectly tuned music in the ears of vinyl record fans even sooner.

In order to transfer an analog signal to a vinyl surface, it must be cut first into a copper matrix from which the vinyl records are pressed. The matrix is cut non-linearly over the frequency using a Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) equalization curve. When users play the vinyl record, the phono preamp reverts the RIAA equalization curve from the turntable back to the shape it was on the original recording, the so-called “playback curve.”

The central microcontroller board

Turntables operate with either moving coil (MC) or moving magnet (MM) cartridges. Selecting different inputs for MM and MC cartridges, connecting a terminating resistor and/or capacitor, and setting the appropriate gain is done via a microcontroller board inside the phono preamp itself. A team around Professor Francesco Volpe of the University of Aschaffenburg in Germany took on this challenge to design and produce a microcontroller-based phone preamp using their PCB prototyping system entirely in-house.

Chemical-free milling process

In this case study, operators used the LPKF ProtoMat S64 to mill the microcontroller’s double-sided circuit board layout without using any etching chemicals. Operators processed the substrate almost entirely automatically using the system’s automated tool changes, camera-controlled fiducial recognition, and integrated milling width control.

For through-hole plating, operators coated the circuit board with ProConduct paste, then drilled holes through a protective film. With the help of a squeegee and a vacuum table, they pulled the conductive paste through the holes, allowing it to cure in an oven. They then removed the protective film.

Finished PCB in less than an hour

With the combination of the LPKF ProtoMat S64 and ProConduct paste, less than an hour transpired between the final PCB layout and the produced PCB. Once the phono preamp was built, engineers successfully carried out detailed signal measurements with spectacular results.

Development of a High-End Phono Preamp

Read the full case study here.

Precision PCB Prototyping

The LPKF ProtoMatS64’s chemical-free process allows engineers to produce through-plated PCBs in a micro-computer lab without special chemical precautions. The accuracy of the ProtoMat S64 enables the creation of small, precise structures required for modern fine pitch components.

Best performance with ProtoLaser ST

While contactless PCB production using a laser reduces the number of tools and steps required, price has often been a barrier for LPKF ProtoMat owners—until now.

Last year, LPKF introduced the first affordable tabletop laser system with the same dimensions as the ProtoMat. This new plug-and-play system features easy-to-use software, rich material libraries and design updates based on customer feedback. Not only does the laser eliminate the need for carbide surface milling tools, insulation channels can now shrink below 100 µm. But once you have a laser, what should you do with your existing ProtoMat? Let’s take a deeper look at double-sided sample production using the new LPKF ProtoLaser ST.

The Sample

For this sample, we will utilize a 32-bit, 80 x 100mm (approx. 3” x 4”) ARM Cortex microcontroller environment, double-sided board with 304 holes and vias. Because this board requires a solder mask, we start by importing CAD data into an existing LPKF CircuitPro for ProtoMat. We still need the ProtoMat for drilling and routing, as the ProtoLaser ST isn’t ideal for drilling FR4.


For this application, we are using a ProtoMat S104 hi-end milling system. Drilling a single sample takes 13 minutes, including fiducial, vias, and through-hole components as well as mounting holes. However, usually both samples can be drilled in a single process.


The through hole plating step is pretty straight forward using the LPKF Contac S4. With a target of 17 µm added copper, the initial cleaning and treatment run practically by themselves. Once the through-holes are complete, our copper-plated panel is ready for the ProtoLaser ST. The CircuitPro 2019 software will recognize file specifications and preset filters for double-sided boards.

Laser Processing

For our material, we will use an FR4 with 18 µm Cu on each side. The software will run the calculations of the scan fields and tool paths all in one move. The data prep requires approximately five minutes. Processing the bottom side of the board with direct laser etching takes 21 minutes, and the top side 19 minutes after manual flipping. When using LPKF ProMask for the solder mask in conjunction with a ProtoLaser, you can omit some of the usual process steps. The polymer should still be applied to the board and cured by UV light; however, the laser will remove the solder resist from the pads with superior precision.

For routing the board outline to separate the PCB from the panel, transfer the PCB back to the ProtoMat, using the same fiducials to align the board and perform a perimeter cut-out. The ProtoLaser ST provides existing LPKF prototyping customers an excellent opportunity to reduce pitch below 100/100 µm, while increasing process speed. The sample with 35 µm (1oz) Cu was produced in a less than half of the time of the flagship milling system, the ProtoMat S104.

Read the entire, detailed report here.

Why Upgrade Your In-house PCB Prototyping Capabilities?

It may just be “Just a Matter of Time”

When considering an upgrade to your prototyping lab, new and improved capabilities certainly a play a major role. As you evaluate your options, you may also wish to consider the amount of time required by a technician to operate the system and complete your finished PCB prototype. The ProtoMat SX4 Series’ updated features provide a whole new level of in-house PCB prototyping automation!

LPKF Laser & Electronics ProtoMat S64 and S104 systems have been redesigned with your engineer’s valuable time in mind. The new fully automated ProtoMat SX4 series features provide engineers with the ability to complete prototyping projects with minimal system interaction, freeing up valuable time for your engineers to work on other projects while your prototype is being processed.


The SX4 Series 15-20 position automated tool exchange eliminates the need to address the system each time a new tool is required. The SX4 series also provides automated depth of cut setting with an accuracy of +-1 µm, eliminating the need for time consuming manual depth setting adjustments. The ProtoMat S104 includes a new Copper Thickness Sensor Probe that measures copper thickness and will verify unknown material stock which you may have unlabeled in your lab.


Automated alignment of your top and bottom designs can now be accomplished in seconds using the integrated high resolution Fiducial Recognition and Alignment camera included on all SX4 series systems. Automatic milling cut depth and width adjustment can also be quickly and accurately accomplished using the fiducial camera and CircuitPro software.


The ProtoMat SX4 series now includes a Pneumatic collet and independent z-axis drive enabling faster and unattended operations of the S64 and S104 systems. 150 mm/s (6 in/s) max travel speed and 100 strokes/min drilling speed ensure your project will be completed in short order.


These new and time saving innovations are combined with the ProtoMat SX4 series individually calibrated granite base and precision flat ceramic vacuum table to provide industry leading speed, efficiency and long-term precision for your prototyping equipment needs. Your thin and flexible materials can now be positioned easily and held precisely.


Rapid prototyping is essential to prove circuit layouts and quickly release new products to the market. With nearly 45 years of German engineered PCB prototyping system development, LPKF engineers took time to improve our ProtoMat SX4 Series systems so that your engineers can save development time and be more productive! Our SX4 series will take your design from idea to prototype in record time!


Watch our ProtoMat SX4 demonstration video to see how fast and easy PCB prototyping can be.


ProtoMat SX4 Demonstration Video

Whether you are considering an upgrade to your existing prototyping system, a research facility with plans for new prototyping capabilities, or just beginning your evaluation; take time to visit www.lpkfusa.com/products/pcb_prototyping/ for more information on our ProtoMat S64 or S104 precision prototyping systems. We look forward to assisting you!