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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KiCad Traducido al Español

KiCad ya es una gran herramienta para la captura esquemática y el diseño de PCB, pero el software sólo funciona si es posible utilizarlo. Para los mil millones de personas que no hablan inglés, esto significa que el idioma es la barrera más grande al momento de utilizar el mejor software para desarrollo de hardware. En los últimos meses, [ElektroQuark] ha estado liderando esfuerzos de localización al español de KiCad y estos se encuentran finalmente completados. También ha iniciado un foro de KiCad en idioma español para llevar el desarrollo de software hacia uno de los idiomas más hablado del planeta.

SpanishMientras que ha habido otros intentos por localizar KiCad a otros idiomas, la mayoría de estos proyectos se encuentran incompletos. En una actualización de KiCad hace algunos meses, la localización al español ya contaba con algunas cadenas ya traducidas, pero no demasiadas. Los esfuerzos de [ElektroQuark] han acercado KiCad a millones de hablantes nativos de español, no solo algunos de sus menús.

El español es la segunda lengua más hablada del planeta, mientras que el inglés es la tercera. Teniendo en cuenta solamente este hecho, parece absurdo que casi todas las herramientas de software para capturas esquemáticas y diseño de PCB sean localizados sólo al chino o al inglés. Los esfuerzos de [ElektroQuark] por localizar KiCad al español son un gran avance para un ya impresionante software.

Eagle to KiCad made easy

One barrier for those wanting to switch over from Eagle to KiCad has been the lack of a way to convert existing projects from one to the other. An Eagle to KiCad ULP exists, but it only converts the schematic, albeit with errors and hence not too helpful. And for quite some time, KiCad has been able to open Eagle .brd layout files. But without a netlist to read and check for errors, that’s not too useful either. [Lachlan] has written a comprehensive set of Eagle to KiCad ULP scripts to convert schematics, symbols and footprints. Board conversion is still done using KiCad’s built in converter, since it works quite well.

Overall, the process works pretty well, and we were able to successfully convert two projects from Eagle. The entire process took only about 10 to 15 minutes of clean up after running the scripts.

The five scripts and one include file run sequentially once the first one is run. [Lachlan]’s scripts will convert Eagle multi sheet .sch to KiCad multi sheets, place global and local net labels for multi sheets, convert multi part symbols, build KiCad footprint modules and symbol libraries from Eagle libraries, create a project directory to store all the converted files, and perform basic error checking. The Eagle 6.xx PCB files can be directly imported to KiCad. The scripts also convert Via’s to Pads, which helps with KiCad’s flood fill, when Via’s have no connections – this part requires some manual intervention and post processing. There are detailed instructions on [Lachlan]’s GitHub repository and he also walks through the process in the video.

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KiCad Utilities Generate Parts; Track Costs

The popularity of KiCad keeps increasing, and not only are more people converting to it and using it for their projects, but there’s also a growing number of folks actively contributing to the project in the form of libraries, scripts and utilities to improve the work flow.


[Dave Vandenbout] a.k.a [xesscorp] has written a couple of utilities for KiCad. When working with large multi pin parts such as micro-controllers, creating a schematic symbol from scratch using the traditional KiCad schematic library editor can be quite tedious. KiPart is a python script that uses a CSV table as its input to generate the KiCad schematic symbol and is able to create multi-part symbols too. Usage is quite simple. The csv file needs a part name on its first row. The next row contains the headers. ‘Pin’ number and Pin ‘Name’ are the minimum required. Additionally, you can add in ‘Unit’, ‘Side’, ‘Type’, and ‘Style’. Unit is used when defining multi-unit parts. Side decides the location of the pin, Type its function, and Style is its graphic representation. Running the KiPart python script then results in a nice KiCad schematic symbol. Besides, KiPart can specifically generate schematic symbols for the Xilinx 7-Series FPGAs and the Cypress PSoC5LP. There are a whole host of options to customize the final output, for example ordering pin placement based on pin number, or pin name or pin function. Source files can be obtained from the [xesscorp] Github repository.


KiCostAnother useful utility from [xesscorp] is KiCost. It is intended to be run as a script for generating part-cost spreadsheets for circuit boards developed with KiCad. The one piece of information you need to add to your schematic parts is a manufacturers part number. The KiCost Python script then processes the BOM XML file, reading the manufacturer part number, scraping the web sites of several popular distributors for price and inventory data, and creating a costing spreadsheet. You can grab the source files from the KiCost Github repository.

Check the two videos below where [Dave] walks through the two utilities.

Thanks to [RoGeorge] for sending in this tip by commenting on the Open Source FPGA Pi Hat built by [Dave] that we featured recently.

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KiCad 4.0 is Released

If you’re a KiCad user, as many of us here at Hackaday are, you’ll be elated to hear that KiCad 4.0 has just been released! If you’re not yet a KiCad user, or if you’ve given it a shot in the past, now’s probably a good time to give it a try. (Or maybe wait until the inevitable 4.0.1 bugfix version comes out.)

If you’ve been using the old “stable” version of KiCad (from May 2013!), you’ve got a lot of catching-up to do.

The official part footprint libraries changed their format sometime in 2014, and are all now hosted on GitHub in separate “.pretty” folders for modularity and ease of updating. Unfortunately, this means that you’ll need to be a little careful with your projects until you’ve switched all the parts over. The blow is softened by a “component rescue helper” but you’re still going to need to be careful if you’re still using old schematics with the new version.

The most interesting change, from a basic PCB-layout perspective, is the push-and-shove router. We’re looking for a new demo video online, but this one from earlier this year will have to do for now. We’ve been using various “unstable” builds of KiCad for the last two years just because of this feature, so it’s awesome to see it out in an actual release. The push-and-shove router still has some quirks, and doesn’t have all the functionality of the original routers, though, so we often find ourselves switching back and forth. But when you need the push-and-shove feature, it’s awesome.

If you’re doing a board where timing is critical, KiCad 4.0 has a bunch of differential trace and trace-length tuning options that are something far beyond the last release. The 3D board rendering has also greatly improved.

Indeed, there are so many improvements that have been made over the last two and a half years, that everybody we know has been using the nightly development builds of KiCad instead of the old stable version. If you’ve been doing the same, version 4.0 may not have all that much new for you. But if you’re new to KiCad, now’s a great time to jump in.

We’ve covered KiCad hacks before, and have another article on KiCad add-on utilities in the pipeline as we write this. For beginners, [Chris Gammell]’s tutorial video series is still relevant, and is a must-watch.

Thanks [LC] for the newsworthy tip!

A Tale of Two Browser PCB Tools

We live in a golden age of free Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools. It wasn’t that long ago that an engineering workstation was an expensive piece of hardware running very expensive software that typically had annual fees. Now, you can go to your local electronics store and buy a PC that would shame that old workstation and download plenty of software to design schematics, simulate circuits, program devices, and lay out PCBs.

The only problem with a lot of this free software is it runs on Windows. I do sometimes run Windows, but I most often use Linux, so there is a certain attractiveness to a new breed of tools that run in the Web browser. In particular, I wanted to look briefly at two Web-based EDA tools: EasyEDA and MeowCAD. Both offer similar features: draw a schematic, populate a PCB, and download manufacturing files (that is, Gerber files). EasyEDA also offers SPICE simulation.

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Reverse Engineering Altium Files

Several times in the last few weeks, I’ve heard people say, ‘this will be the last PCB I design in Eagle.’ That’s bad news for CadSoft, but if there’s one thing Eagle has done right, its their switch to an XML file format. Now anyone can write their own design tools for Eagle without mucking about with binary files.

Not all EDA softwares are created equally, and a lot of vendors use binary file formats as a way to keep their market share. Altium is one of the worst offenders, but by diving into the binary files it’s possible to reverse engineer these proprietary file formats into something nearly human-readable.

[]’s first step towards using an Altium file with his own tools was opening it up with a hex editor. Yeah, this is as raw as it can possibly get, but simply by scrolling through the file, he was able to find some interesting bits hanging around the file. It turns out, Altium uses something called a Compound Document File, similar to what Office uses for Word and PowerPoint files, to store all the information. Looking through the lens of this file format, [] found all the content was held in a stream called ‘FileHeader’, everything was an array of strings (yeah, everything is in text), and lines of text are separated by ‘|’ in name=value pairs.

With a little bit of code, [dstanko] managed to dump all these text records into a pseudo plain text format, then convert everything into JSON. You can check out all the code here.