Creating A PCB In Everything: KiCad, Part 1

This is the continuation of a series of articles demonstrating how to Create A PCB In Everything. In this series, we take a standard reference circuit and PCB layout — a simple ATtiny85 board — and build it with different PCB design tools. Already, we’ve taken a look at the pre-history of PCB design with Protel Autotrax, we learned Fritzing is a joke for PCB design, and we’ve done a deep dive into Eagle. Each of these tutorials serves two purposes. First, it is a very quick introduction to each PCB design tool. Second, this series provides an overall comparison between different PCB design tools.

Now, finally, and after many complaints, it’s time for the tutorial everyone has been waiting for. It’s time for KiCad.

No, like the head of the Bajoran clergy

Although KiCad (pronounced ‘Kai-Cad’ like the head of the Bajoran clergy, not ‘Key-Cad’ like the thing that goes in a lock) is the new hotness when it comes to PCB design. The amazing growth of KiCad installations over the past few years is a long time coming. In development since 1992, KiCad has cemented itself as the premier Open Source PCB design suite, and since 2013 CERN has been making contributions to the project. More recently, the KiCad project has been showing off some amazing new features. These include 3D rendering of boards, interactive routing, push-and-shove, simulation, and dozens of other features that put it on a path to being on par with the top of the line EDA suites. Add in some great community contributions, and you have something really, really amazing. All of this is wrapped up in an Open Source license, free as in speech and beer. If you’re looking for the future of PCB design, Eagle is going to get very good but KiCad is almost there now while being Open Source.

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Make Water Bridges With High Voltages

It’s generally a bad idea to mix high voltage electricity and water, but interesting things happen if you do. This video from [RWGResearch] shows one of them: water bridging. If you have two water sources (such as two beakers full of very highly distilled water) with a high voltage between them, the voltage can create a gravity defying bridge that flows between them.

The experiment starts with the pouring spouts from two beakers nearly touching each other. Water fills the beakers right up to the spout, but it’s the application of electricity that pulls the bridge between the positive and negative beakers. With care, this technique can create a bridge of up to 2cm (about 0.8 inches). [RWGResearch] shows that he is able to create a bridge of about a centimeter with a 5KV voltage, but which only carries a few milliamps.

What forces are at play here isn’t exactly clear, but one recent paper speculates that it’s down to a combination of the dielectric force caused by the differing charges of parts of water molecules and the surface tension of the water. Whatever it is, it is fascinating and makes for a neat trick.

Want to make your own contribution to the scientific body of knowledge? Prove or disprove the speculation mentioned in the Wikipeadia article: is this possible because of an H3O2 lattice formed by the high voltage? How would you formulate a test for this?

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Creating A PCB In Everything: Protel Autotrax

Protel Autotrax is a PCB design tool first released for DOS in the mid-80s. Consider this a look at the history of PCB design software. I’m not recommending anyone actually use Protel Autotrax —  better tools with better support exist. But it’s important to know where we came from to understand the EDA tools available now. I’m rolling up my sleeves (about 30 years worth of rolling) and building our standardized test PCB with the tool. Beyond this, I suggest viewing EEVblog #747, where [Dave] digs into one of his old project, Borland Pascal, and Protel Autotrax.

This is the continuation of a series of articles demonstrating how to Create A PCB In Everything. In this series, we take a standard reference circuit and PCB layout — a simple ATtiny85 board — and build it with different PCB design tools. We’ve already covered Eagle in this series. We learned Fritzing is a joke for PCB design, although it is quite good for making breadboard graphics of circuits. Each of these tutorials serves as a very quick introduction to a specific PCB design tool. Overall, this series provides for a comparison between different PCB design tools. Let’s dig into Protel Autotrax.

A short history of Protel, Altium, and Autotrax

The company we know as Altium today was, for the first fifteen years of its existence, known as Protel. Back in the day, PCB design on a computer required a dedicated workstation, a lot of hardware, light pens, and everything was extraordinarily expensive. Protel was a reaction to this and the first product, Autotrax, was a DOS-based program that brought PCB design to the PC. A freeware version of Autotrax is still available on the Altium website and can be run from inside a DOS virtual machine or DOSBox.

Interestingly, Protel Autotrax is not the only PCB design software named Autotrax. A company called DEX 2020 has also has a PCB design software called AutoTRAX. This is weird, confusing, and I can’t figure out how this doesn’t violate a trademark. If anyone has any insight to what the Protel / Altium legal department was doing a few decades ago, your wisdom is welcome in the comments.

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Stormtrooper Voice Changer Helmet uses Teensy to Mangle Audio

Halloween has come and gone, but this DIY voice changing Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet tutorial by [Shawn Hymel] is worth a look for a number of reasons. Not only is the whole thing completely self-contained, but the voice changing is done in software thanks to the Teensy’s powerful audio filtering abilities. In addition, the Teensy also takes care of adding the iconic Stormtrooper clicks, pops, and static bursts around the voice-altered speech. Check out the video below to hear it in action.

Besides a microphone and speakers, there’s a Teensy 3.2, a low-cost add-on board for the Teensy that includes a small audio amp, a power supply… and that’s about it. There isn’t a separate WAV board or hacked MP3 player in sight.

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Pi Cart: 2,400 Games In One

What’s the quickest way to turn one game into 2,400? Cram a Raspberry Pi Zero running RetroPie into an NES cartridge and call it Pi Cart.

This elegant little build requires no soldering — provided you have good cable management skills and the right parts. To this end, [Zach] remarks that finding a USB adapter — the other main component — small enough to fit inside the cartridge required tedious trial and error, so he’s helpfully linked one he assures will work. One could skip this step, but the potential for couch co-op is probably worth the effort.

Another sticking point might be Nintendo’s use of security screws; if you have the appropriate bit or screwdriver, awesome, otherwise you might have to improvise. Cutting back some of the plastic to widen the cartridge opening creates enough room to hot glue in the USB hub, a micro USB port for power, and an HDMI port in the resulting gap. If you opted to shorten the cables, fitting it all inside should be simple, but you may have to play a bit of Tetris with the layout to ensure everything fits.

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Train Time Ticker Will Save Your Morning Commute

The fatal combination of not being a early riser and commuting to work using public transit can easily result in missed buses or trains. Frustrated with missing train after train while fumbling with a complicated transit schedule app, [Fergal Carroll] created a Train Time Ticker to help his morning routine run right on time.

A Particle Photon hooked up to a 2.2″ TFT screen — both mounted on a breadboard with a button — fit the purpose tidily. Weekday mornings, the Ticker pulls — from a server he set up — the departure times for the specific station and platform along [Carroll]’s commute every three minutes; at all other times, the Ticker can be manually refreshed for any impending trips.

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Creating A PCB In Everything: Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Fritzing

This week, we’re continuing our Creating A PCB In Everything series, where we go through the steps to create a simple, barebones PCB in different EDA suites. We’re done with Eagle, and now it’s time to move onto Fritzing.

fritzing-logoFritzing came out of the Interaction Design Lab at the University of Applied Sciences of Potsdam in 2007 as a project initiated by Professor Reto Wettach, André Knörig and Zach Eveland. It is frequently compared to Processing, Wiring, or Arduino in that it provides an easy way for artists, creatives, or ‘makers’ to dip their toes into the waters of PCB design.

I feel it is necessary to contextualize Fritzing in the space of ‘maker movement’, DIY electronics, and the last decade of Hackaday. Simply by virtue of being an editor for Hackaday, I have seen thousands of homebrew PCBs, and tens of thousands of amateur and hobbyist electronics projects. Despite what the Fritzing’s Wikipedia talk page claims, Fritzing is an important piece of software. The story of the ‘maker movement’ – however ill-defined that phrase is – cannot be told without mentioning Fritzing. It was the inspiration for CircuitLab, and the Fritzing influence can easily be seen in Autodesk’s 123D Circuits.

Just because a piece of software is important doesn’t mean it’s good. I am, perhaps, the world’s leading expert at assessing poorly designed and just plain shitty PCBs. You may scoff at this, but think about it: simply due to my vocation, I look at a lot of PCBs made by amateurs. EE professors, TAs, or Chris Gammell might beat me on volume, but they’re only looking at boards made by students using one tool. I see amateur boards built in every tool, and without exception, the worst are always designed in Fritzing. It should be unacceptable that I can even tell they’re designed in Fritzing.

Fritzing has its place, and that place is building graphical representations for breadboard circuits. Fritzing has no other equal in this respect, and for this purpose, it’s an excellent tool. You can also make a PCB in Fritzing, and here things aren’t as great. I want to do Fritzing for this Creating A PCB In Everything series only to demonstrate how bad PCB design can be.

For the next few thousand words, I am going to combine a tutorial for Fritzing with a review of Fritzing. Fritzing is an important piece of software, if only for being a great way to create graphics of breadboard circuits. As a PCB design tool, it’s lacking; creating parts from scratch is far too hard, and there’s no way to get around the grid snap tool. No one should ever be forced to create a PCB in Fritzing, but it does have its own very limited place.

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