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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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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Build the Simplest Bipolar Power Supply

How many integrated circuits do you need to build up a power supply that’ll convert mains AC into a stable DC voltage? Would you believe, none? We just watched this video by [The Current Source] (embedded below), where he builds exactly that. If you’re in the mood for a very well done review of diode bridges as well as half- and full-wave rectifiers, you should check it out.

First off, [TCS] goes through the basics of rectification, and demonstrates very nicely on the oscilloscope how increasing capacitance on the output smooths out the ripple. (Hint: more is better.) And then it’s off to build. The end result is a very simple unregulated power supply — just a diode bridge with some capacitors on the output — but by using really big capacitors he gets down into the few-millivolt range for ripple into a constant load.

The output voltage of this circuit will depend on the average current drawn, but for basically static loads this circuit should work well enough, and the simplicity of just tossing gigantic capacitors at the problem is alluring. (We would toss in a linear regulator somewhere.)

Quibbling over circuit designs isn’t why you’re watching this video, though. It’s because you want to learn something. Check out the rest of his videos as well. [TCS] has only been at it a little while, but it looks like this is going to be a channel to watch.

Two-Stage Tentacle Mechanisms Part III: Putting it All Together

Welcome back to the final chapter in our journey exploring two-stage tentacle mechanisms. This is where we arm you with the tools and techniques to get one of these cretins alive-and-kicking in your livingroom. In this last installment, I’ll guide us through the steps of building our very own tentacle and controller identical to one we’ve been discussing in the last few weeks. As promised, this post comes with a few bonuses:

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Nothing like a fresh batch o’ parts.

Design Files

  1. The Almighty Bill-o’-Materials
  2. Vector Drawings for laser cutting
    1. DXF files pre-offset (0.003″)
    2. DXF files original
  3. STL Models for 3D Printing
  4. Original Tentacle CAD Model Files
  5. Original Controller CAD Model Files

Depending on your situation, some design files may be more important than others. If you just want to get parts made, odds are good that you can simply cut the pre-offset DXFs from the right plate thicknesses and get rolling. Of course, if you need to tune the files for a laser with a slightly different beam diameter, I’ve included the original DXFs for good measure. For the heavy-hitters, I’ve also included the original files if there’s something about this design that just deserves a tweak or two. Have at it! (And, of course, let us know how you improve it!)

Ok, now that we’ve got the parts on-hand in a pile of pieces,let’s walk through the last-mile tweaks to making this puppet work: assembly and tuning. At this point, we’ve got a collection of parts, some laser-cut, some off the shelf. Now it’s time to string them together.

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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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How to Get Started with the ESP32

ESP32 is the hottest new wireless chip out there, offering both WiFi and Bluetooth Low Energy radios rolled up with a dual-core 32-bit processor and packed with peripherals of every kind. We got some review sample dev boards, Adafruit and Seeed Studio had them in stock for a while, and AI-Thinker — the company that makes the most popular ESP8266 modules — is starting up full-scale production on October 1st. This means that some of you have the new hotness in your hands right now, and the rest of you aren’t going to have to wait more than a few more weeks.

As we said in our first-look review of the new chip, many things are in a state of flux on the software side, but the basic process of writing, compiling, and flashing code to the chip is going to remain stable. It’s time to start up some tutorials!

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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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