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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Designing Flat Flexible PCBs

You can find flex PCBs in just about every single piece of consumer electronics. These traces of copper laminated in sheets of Kapton are everywhere, and designing these cables, let alone manufacturing them, is a dark art for the garage electronics wizard. Having these flat flex cables and PCBs manufactured still requires some Google-fu or a contact at a fab house, but at least now designing these cables is a solved problem.

[Oli] needed a way to connect two PCBs together over a moving part. Usually this means some sort of connector or cable, but he’s developed an even better solution – flexible PCB connections. To generate these copper traces sandwiched between a few layers of Kapton, [Oli] wrote a Python script to take a set of parameters, and produces an design for Eagle that includes all the relevant bits.

Of course, with a flexible PCB layout, the question of how to get these manufactured comes up. we’ve seen a few creative people make flexible PCBs with a 3D printer and there’s been more than one Hackaday Prize project using these flex PCBs. [Oli] says any manufacturer of flexible circuits should be able to reproduce everything generated from his script without much thinking at all. All we need now is for OSH Park to invent purple Kapton.

You can grab [Oli]’s script on his GitHub.

KiCAD BOM Management

KiCAD remains a popular tool for designing PCBs and other circuits, and with good reason: it’s versatile and it’s got pretty much everything needed to build any type of circuit board you’d want. It also comes with a pretty steep learning curve, though, and [Jeff] was especially frustrated with the bill of materials (BOM) features in KiCAD. After applying some Python and Kivy, [Jeff] now has a BOM manager that makes up for some of KiCAD’s shortcomings.

Currently, the tool handles schematic import, like-component consolidation, and a user-managed parts database that can be used to store and retrieve commonly used parts for the future. All of the changes can be saved back to the original schematic. [Jeff] hopes that his tool will save some time for anyone who makes more than one PCB a year and has to deal with the lack of BOM features native to KiCAD.

[Jeff] still has some features he’d like to add such as unit tests, a user guide, and a cleaner user interface. What other features are you anxious to see added to KiCAD?

This script is a great tool for anyone who has had similar frustrations. KiCAD is popular to modify and expand, too: there have been tools for mechanical CAD export, a parts-generator and cost-tracker, and an Eagle to KiCAD converter if you’re thinking of making the switch.

Developed on Hackaday : HaDge update – it’s a HACK

Work on HaDge – the Hackaday con badge, continues in bits and spurts, and we’ve had some good progress in recent weeks. HaDge will be one conference badge to use at all conferences, capable of communicating between badges.

Picking up from where we left off last time, we had agreed to base it around the Atmel D21, a 32-bit ARM Cortex M0+ processor. To get some prototype boards built to help with software development, we decided to finish designing the HACK before tackling HaDge. HACK is a project that [Michele Perla] started that we have sort of assimilated to act as the prototyping platform for HaDge. We wanted a compact micro-controller board and hence opted for the SAM D21E – a 32 pin package with 26 IO’s.

[Michele Perla] had earlier designed HACK based on the larger 32 pin SAM D21G and used Eagle to hack-brddraw the schematic and layout. Using the Eagle to KiCad script, he quickly converted the project and got on to making the board layout. I took up the rear guard, and worked on making his schematic (pdf) “pretty” and building up a schematic library of symbols. While [Michele] finished off the board layout, I worked on collecting STEP models for the various footprints we would be using, most of which I could get via 3dcontentcentral.com. The few I couldn’t were built from scratch using FreeCAD. The STEP models were converted to VRML using FreeCAD. Using [Maurice]’s KiCad Stepup script, we were able to obtain a complete STEP model of the HACK board.

HACK is now ready to go for board fabrication and assembly. We plan to get about 20 boards made and hand them out to developers for working on the software. The GitHub repository has all the current files for those who’d like to take a look – it includes the KiCad source files, PDFs, gerbers, data sheets and images. The board will be breadboard compatible and also have castellated pads to allow it to be soldered directly as a module. Let us know via group messaging on the HACK project page if you’d like to get involved with either the software or hardware development of HaDge.

In a forthcoming post, we’ll put out ideas on how we plan to take forward HaDge now that HACK is complete. Stay tuned.