ARMing a Breadboard — Everyone Should Program an ARM

I’m always a little surprised that we don’t see more ARM-based projects. Of course, we do see some, but the volume isn’t what I’d expect given that low-level ARM chips are cheap, capable, low power, and readily available. Having a 32-bit processor with lots of memory running at 40 or 50 MIPS is a game changer compared to, say, a traditional Arduino (and, yes, the Arduino Due and Zero are ARM-based, so you can still stay with Arduino, if that’s what you want).

A few things might inhibit an Arduino, AVR, or PIC user from making the leap. For one thing, most ARM chips use 3.3V I/O instead of the traditional 5V levels (there are exceptions, like the Kinetis E). There was a time when the toolchain was difficult to set up, although this is largely not a problem anymore. But perhaps the largest hurdle is that most of the chips are surface mount devices.

Of course, builders today are getting pretty used to surface mount devices and you can also get evaluation boards pretty cheaply, too. But in some situations–for example, in classrooms–it is very attractive to have a chip that is directly mountable on a common breadboard. Even if you don’t mind using a development board, you may want to use the IC directly in a final version of a project and some people still prefer working with through hole components.

The 28 Pin Solution

One solution that addresses most, if not all, of these concerns is the LPC1114FN28 processor. Unlike most other ARM processors, this one comes in a 28 pin DIP package and works great on a breadboard. It does require 3.3V, but it is 5V tolerant on digital inputs (and, of course, a 3.3V output is usually fine for driving a 5V input). The chip will work with mbed or other ARM tools and after prototyping, you can always move to a surface mount device for production, if you like. Even if you are buying just one, you should be able to find the device for under $6.

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Why are You Still Making PCBs?

Few things have had the impact on electronics that printed circuit boards (PCBs) have had. Cheap consumer electronics would not be as cheap if someone still had to wire everything (although by now we’d be seeing wiring robots, I’m sure). Between removing the human from the wiring process and providing many excellent electrical properties (at least, on a well-designed board), it isn’t surprising that even the cheapest examples of electronics now use PCBs.

For many years, the hallmark of being a big-time electronic hacker was the ability to make your own PCBs. There have been many ways that people have tried to bring PCB manufacturing into the hacker’s garage: stick on decals, light-sensitive blank PCBs, and even using laser printer toner (that last one spurred me to write a book on PCB layout many years back). You also see a lot of people using 3D printers or CNC mills to create PCBs. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me how to make a PCB in a home or small business lab.

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Organize That Messy Prototype

You’re working away busily at your project. A pcb here cabled to a breadboard in the middle, and over there some motors and other devices. It should work but it doesn’t. Time to hook-up the multimeter but the test point is on the other side. As things are moved around to reach the point, the magic smoke escapes from a critical component. Should have put those pliers away.

Workbenches are always messy. [Ryan Clark] may have an idea that can help.  His Jigmod system — currently running a kickstarter campaign — uses an acrylic a polycarbonate sheet with a grid of mounting holes to keep prototyping hardware in place. If you need to move the prototype around there is no strain on the wiring and no way to set a circuit down on that pair of pliers. The positioning of everything is your decision.

[Ryan] is also providing breakout type boards for connectors like USB and Ethernet, switches, battery holders, and other typical components. This is one place where the system really shines. A lot of these interface connectors tend to be breadboard-unfriendly and the terminal blocks these modules offer solves those issues. When you need to demonstrate your project it’s easy to transport since everything is attached to the plate. No more disconnecting cables, especially jumper wires, and hoping you get them all hooked back the right way at the destination.

With so many dev boards out there we really enjoy seeing jigs that can hold them along with a breadboard. This Stickvise-inspired 3D printed jig sticks out in our minds as a favorite. Do you have your own system of organizing your prototype builds? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Lessons From The Fablab Masters

I spent some time recently at the Fab11 conference, a gathering of the people behind the Fab Labs that are springing up all over the world, where entrepreneurs, hackers and the curious can learn about making things. So, it was no surprise that this was a great place to pick up some tips on designing, building and hacking things. Here are a few of the lessons I picked up at this fascinating gathering of the fabbers.

Build Quickly

If you can make something in an hour, you’ll make it better in a day

said [Joris Van Tubergen]. He knows something about making unusual things because he 3D printed a full-sized Elephant. To do this, he worked out how to hack the Ultimaker 2 3D printer to print to an unlimited Z height by flipping the printer upside down and moving the Z motor to lift the printer rather than the print head. With a few tweaks to the software, he could then print full-height elephant slices to speed up the process. He is absolutely right: while it is tempting to endlessly fiddle with a concept on paper, you learn more by building a prototype, even if it doesn’t work.

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Panel-Mounted Breadboard Accessories

[Chuck Stephens] grew up with Radio Shack 100-in-1 electronic kits. The ones with lots of components and spring terminals that could be wired to be a radio, a burglar alarm, or whatever.[Chuck] graduated to solderless breadboard, but did miss having panel mounted components like pots and switches easily available. So he has been building his own accessory boxes.

Of course, it is easy enough to just connect breadboard wires to component, but [Chuck] went further than that. Using boxes of different types (including a cigar box), he mounted the components properly and also wired them to a breadboard for easy connection.

If you’ve ever tried to solder to breadboard springs (we have), you’ve found it is hard to get adhesion to the shiny metal. [Chuck] solved the problem by crimping little wire hooks to the springs. The result is a good looking and functional prototyping aid.

They do make tiny breadboard style contacts (called tie point blocks; good luck finding them) for this kind of application, but the crimp technique works on common breadboards. These are cheap and much easier to find.

Of course, these days, we are as likely to want to mount SMDs than panel mounted controls. Now if we could only figure out where to put the components. If you want something less involved, take a look at the video below.

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Circuit Printer Doubles as a Pick and Place

Squink PCB printer and Pick and Place

Prototyping circuits is still a pain. The typical process is to order your PCBs, await their arrival, hand assemble a board, and start testing. It’s time consuming, and typically takes at least a week to go from design to prototype.

The folks at BotFactory are working on fixing that with the Squink (Kickstarter warning). This device not only prints PCBs, but also functions as a pick and place. Rather than using solder, the device uses conductive glue to affix components to the substrate.

This process also allows for a wide range of substrates. Traditional FR4 works, but glass and flexible substrates can work too. They’re also working on using an insulating ink for multilayer boards.

While there are PCB printers out there, and the home etching process always works, building the board is only half the battle. Hand assembly using smaller components is slow, and is prone to mistakes. If this device is sufficiently accurate, it could let us easily prototype complex packages such as BGAs, which are usually a pain.

Of course it has its limitations. The minimum trace width is 10 mils, which is a bit large. Also at $2600, this is an expensive device to buy sight unseen. While it is a Kickstarter, it’d be nice to see an all in one device that can prototype circuits quickly and cheaply.

Using Surface Mount Devices On A Breadboard

[Czar] was working on a project with the Raspberry Pi using the MCP3008 analog to digital converter. The surface mount SOIC version of this chip was slightly cheaper, and there’s always a way to make that work (Portuguese, Google Translation). How [Czar] did it is fairly impressive, as it’s a bit more flexible for breadboard designs than a through-hole version, and done correctly, is an extremely sturdy hack.

A few new leads needed to be soldered onto the SOIC package, and for this [Czar] chose jumper wires. This makes each pin easy to plug into a solderless breadboard, and since [Czar] was extremely clever, all the wires for power, ground, analog, and SPI are color coded.

Simply soldering a few jumper wires onto a chip won’t last for very long. To solve this problem, [Czar] potted the entire chip and its connections with hot glue. Probably not the best solution, and a heavy-duty epoxy would have been better, but the current build is more than enough to stand up to the relatively minor abuse it will receive on the workbench.