Creating A PCB In Everything: Eagle DRC and Gerber Files

For the next post in the Creating A PCB series, we’re going to continue our explorations of Eagle. In Part 1,  I went over how to create a part from scratch in Eagle. In Part 2, we used this part to create the small example board from the Introduction.

This time around I’ll be going over Design Rule Check (DRC) — or making sure your board house can actually fabricate what you’ve designed. I’ll also be covering the creation of Gerber files (so you can get the PCB fabbed anywhere you want), and putting real art into the silkscreen and soldermask layers of your boards.

The idea behind this series is to explore different EDA suites and PCB design tools by designing the same circuit in each. You can check out the rest of the posts in this series right here.

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Creating A PCB In Everything: Eagle, Part 2

In the last (and first) post in this series, we took a look at Eagle. Specifically, we learned how to create a custom part in Eagle. Our goal isn’t just to make our own parts in Eagle, we want to make schematics, boards, and eventually solder a few PCBs.

The board we’ll be making, like all of the boards made in this Creating A PCB In Everything series, is the Nanite Wesley, a small USB development platform based on the ATtiny85. This board has less than a dozen parts, most of which are through-hole. This is the simplest PCB I can imagine that has sufficient complexity to demonstrate how to make a board.

With that said, let’s get onto the second part of our Eagle tutorial and lay out our circuit board.

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Creating A PCB in Everything: Eagle, Part 1

For the first in a series of posts describing how to make a PCB, we’re going with Eagle. Eagle CAD has been around since the days of DOS, and has received numerous updates over the years. Until KiCad started getting good a few years ago, Eagle CAD was the de facto standard PCB design software for hobbyist projects. Sparkfun uses it, Adafruit uses it, and Dangerous Prototypes uses it. The reason for Eagle’s dominance in a market where people don’t want to pay for software is the free, non-commercial and educational licenses. These free licenses give you the ability to build a board big enough and complex enough for 90% of hobbyist projects.

Of course, it should be mentioned that Eagle was recently acquired by Autodesk. The free licenses will remain, and right now, it seems obvious Eagle will become Autodesk’s pro-level circuit and board design software.

Personally, I learned PCB design on Eagle. After a few years, I quickly learned how limited even the professional version of Eagle was. At that point, the only option was to learn KiCad. Now that Eagle is in the hands of Autodesk, and I am very confident Eagle is about to get really, really good, I no longer have the desire to learn KiCad.

With the introduction out of the way, let’s get down to making a PCB in Eagle.

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Books You Should Read: The Soul of A New Machine

If there was one book that describes what it means to be in the trenches of a cutting edge design, that book is The Soul Of a New Machine. Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer prize-winning book has been an inspiration to thousands over the years.

Soul is the story of the creation of the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, code-named Eagle. Eagle was Data General’s first 32-bit minicomputer. If you’re not a retrocomputing aficionado, minicomputers were a major industry back in the 70’s and 80’s. Starting in 1964 with the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-8, minis provided a low-cost means for companies to get a computer. The only other option was a huge mainframe from companies like IBM. Minicomputers chugged along until the 1990s when microprocessor-based PCs and workstations passed them by. The market, and the industry evaporated.

Today, more than 30 years later, minicomputers are all but forgotten. Data General itself is long gone, purchased by EMC in 1999. DG’s mark on the landscape has all but been erased by the swiftly moving sands of technical progress. All except for the snapshot Kidder set down in Soul.

An MV/8000 installation (from DG literature)
An MV/8000 installation (from DG literature)

The technical side of designing a new computer is just one part of this book. The Soul of a New Machine is three stories: the story of the engineers, the story of the managers, and the story of the machine they built. For this reason, the book has found itself on the reading list of engineering schools and management institutes alike.

The thing that makes this book appeal to the masses is Kidder’s uncanny ability to explain incredibly complex topics in layman’s terms. He manages to explain the inner workings of a 32-bit CPU, all the way down to the level of microcode. He delves into Programmable Array Logic (PALs), forerunners of the CPLD and FPGA devices you read about on our pages today. PALs were a hot new technology back in the late 70’s. They allowed the Eagle team to make changes quickly — without pulling out their wire wrapping tools.

Kidder manages to explain these things in a way that doesn’t leave the average Joe scratching their head, yet doesn’t bore the technically savvy. If he ever decides to stop writing non-fiction, Tracy Kidder would have a career writing user manuals.

The Soul of a New Machine starts in a very unlikely place – on the deck of a sailing ship during a rough storm. The scene is our introduction to the star of the book – Tom West, a manager at Data General. West is multifaceted and enigmatic to say the least. A folk guitarist who was inspired to work on electronics by the Apollo program. He was a few years too late for NASA though. Eventually he found himself travelling the world building and adjusting incredibly accurate clocks at astronomical observatories for the Smithsonian. This meandering path eventually led him to DG, where he was hired as a computer engineer and quickly worked his way up the ranks.

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The Future Of Eagle CAD

Last week, Autodesk announced their purchase of CadSoft Eagle, one of the most popular software packages for electronic design automation and PCB layout.

Eagle has been around for nearly thirty years, and has evolved to become the standard PCB design package for electronic hobbyists, students, and engineering firms lead by someone who learned PCB design with Eagle. The reason for this is simple: it’s good enough for most simple designs, and there is a free version of Eagle. The only comparable Open Source alternative is KiCad, which doesn’t have nearly as many dedicated followers as Eagle.  Eagle, for better or worse, is a standard, and Open Source companies from  Sparkfun to Adafruit use it religiously and have created high-quality libraries of parts and multiple tutorials

I had the chance to talk with [Matt Berggren], former Hackaday overlord who is currently serving as the Director of Autodesk Circuits. He is the person ultimately responsible for all of Autodesk’s electronic design products, from Tinkercad, 123D, Ecad.io, and project Wire, the engine behind Voxel8, Autodesk’s 3D printer that also prints electronics. [Matt] is now the master of Eagle, and ultimately will decide what will change, what stays the same, and the development path for Eagle.

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The EAGLE has landed: at Autodesk!

The selloffs continue at Farnell! We’d previously reported that the UK distributor of electronics parts was being sold to a Swiss distributor of electronics parts. Now it looks like they’re getting rid of some of their non-core businesses, and in this case that means CadSoft EAGLE, a popular free-for-limited-use PCB layout suite.

But that’s not the interesting part: they sold EAGLE to Autodesk!

Autodesk had a great portfolio of professional 3D-modeling tools, and has free versions of a good number of their products. (Free as in beer. You don’t get to see the code or change it.) By all accounts, the professional versions of their tools are very professional if you can afford them, and the trial versions are still useful. This makes EAGLE slot very nicely into their business model, filling a hole (PCB design) in their toolchain.

What does this mean for those of you out there still using EAGLE instead of open-source alternatives? (We haven’t used EAGLE since KiCAD got good a couple years back.) Beats us! Care to speculate wildly? That’s why we have a comments section. Go! In the mean time we hope to have more info for you directly from Autodesk soon so stay tuned to the front page.

Reinventing VHDL Badly

A few years ago, Philip Peter started a little pet project. He wanted to build his own processor. This really isn’t out of the ordinary – every few months you’ll find someone with a new project to build a CPU out of relays, logic chips, or bare transistors. Philip is a software developer, though, and while the techniques and theory of building hardware haven’t changed much in decades, software development has made leaps and bounds in just the past few years. He’s on a quest to build a CPU out of discrete components.

Search the Internet for some tips and tricks for schematic capture programs like KiCad and Eagle, and you’ll find some terrible design choices. If you want more than one copy of a very specific circuit on your board, you have to copy and paste. Circuit simulation is completely separate from schematic capture and PCB design, and unit testing – making sure the circuit you designed does what it’s supposed to do – is a completely foreign concept. Schematic capture and EDA suites are decades behind the curve compared to even the most minimal software IDE. That’s where Philip comes in. By his own admission, he reinvented VHDL badly, but he does have a few ideas that are worth listening to.

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