KiCAD Best Practices: Library Management

One common complaint we hear from most new KiCAD users relates to schematic and footprint libraries. The trick is to use just one schematic symbol and footprint library each with your project. This way any changes to the default schematic libraries will not affect your project and it will be easy to share your project with others without breaking it. I’ve spent some time refining this technique and I’ll walk you through the process in this article.

We have covered KiCAD (as well as other) Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools several times in the past. [Brian Benchoff] did a whole series on building a project from start to finish using all the various EDA packages he could lay his hands on. No CAD or EDA software is perfect, and a user has to learn to get to grips with the idiosyncrasies of whichever program they decide to use. This usually leads to a lot of cussing and hair pulling during the initial stages when one can’t figure out “How the hell do I do that?”, especially from new converts who are used to doing things differently.

Read on to learn the best practices to use when using KiCAD and its library management.

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Reverse-Engineering the Peugeot 207’s CAN bus

Here’s a classic “one thing led to another” car hack. [Alexandre Blin] wanted a reversing camera for his old Peugeot 207 and went down a rabbit hole which led him to do some extreme CAN bus reverse-engineering with Arduino and iOS. Buying an expensive bezel, a cheap HDMI display, an Arduino, a CAN bus shield, an iPod touch with a ghetto serial interface cable that didn’t work out, a HM-10 BLE module, an iPad 4S, the camera itself, and about a year and a half of working on it intermittently, he finally emerged poorer by about 275€, but victorious in a job well done. A company retrofit would not only have cost him a lot more, but would have deprived him of everything that he learned along the way.

Adding the camera was the easiest part of the exercise when he found an after-market version specifically meant for his 207 model. The original non-graphical display had to make room for a new HDMI display and a fresh bezel, which cost him much more than the display. Besides displaying the camera image when reversing, the new display also needed to show all of the other entertainment system information. This couldn’t be obtained from the OBD-II port but the CAN bus looked promising, although he couldn’t find any details for his model initially. But with over 2.5 million of the 207’s on the road, it wasn’t long before [Alexandre] hit jackpot in a French University student project who used a 207 to study the CAN bus. The 207’s CAN bus system was sub-divided in to three separate buses and the “comfort” bus provided all the data he needed. To decode the CAN frames, he used an Arduino, a CAN bus shield and a python script to visualize the data, checking to see which frames changed when he performed certain functions — such as changing volume or putting the gear in reverse, for example.

The Arduino could not drive the HDMI display directly, so he needed additional hardware to complete his hack. While a Raspberry Pi would have been ideal, [Alexandre] is an iOS developer so he naturally gravitated towards the Apple ecosystem. He connected an old iPod to the Arduino via a serial connection from the Dock port on the iPod. But using the Apple HDMI adapter to connect to the display broke the serial connection, so he had to put his thinking cap back on. This time, he used a HM-10 BLE module connected to the Arduino, and replaced the older iPod Touch (which didn’t support BLE) with a more modern iPhone 4S. Once he had all the bits and pieces working, it wasn’t too long before he could wrap up this long drawn upgrade, but the final result looks as good as a factory original. Check out the video after the break.

It’s great to read about these kinds of hacks where the hacker digs in his feet and doesn’t give up until it’s done and dusted. And thanks to his detailed post, and all the code shared on his GitHub repository, it should be easy to replicate this the second time around, for those looking to upgrade their old 207. And if you’re looking for inspiration, check out this great Homemade Subaru Head Unit Upgrade.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Experiments with Wheeled Legs

If you’ve been keeping tabs on recent developments in robotics, you surely remember Handle — the awesome walking, wheeled robot from Boston Dynamics. There’s a good reason why such a combination is a good choice of locomotion for robots. Rolling on wheels is a good way to cover smooth terrain with high efficiency. But when you hit rocky patches or obstacles, using legs to negotiate these obstacles makes sense. But Handle isn’t the only one, nor is it the first.

[Radomir Dopieralski] has been building small robots for a while now, and is especially interested in how they move. He is sharing his experience while Experimenting with Wheeled Legs, with the eventual aim of “building an experimental walking+rolling robot, to more efficiently kill all humans and thus solve all the problems”. His pithy comments aside, investigating and experimenting with different forms of locomotion to understand which method is most efficient will pay rich dividends in the design of future robots.

During an earlier version of the Hackaday Prize, [Radomir] snagged a coupon for laser cutting services. He used it to build a new robot based on a fresh look at some of his earlier designs. This resulted in the Logicoma-kun — a functional model of a Logikoma (a logistics robot designed to be a fast all-terrain vehicle for transporting weapons and ammunition) from “Ghost in the Shell: Arise”. Along the way, he figured out how to save some servo channels. For gripping function, he needed to drive two servos in sync with each other, but in opposing directions. This would usually require two GPIO’s and a few extra lines of code. Instead, he dismantled a servo and reversed the motor AND the servo potentiometer connections.

But this is still early days for [Radomir]. He is fleshing out ideas, looking for feedback and discussions on robotic locomotion. This fits in perfectly with the “Design Your Concept” phase of the Hackaday Prize 2017. He has already made some progress on Logicoma-kum by having it move in either the wheeled or walking modes — check out the videos after the break.

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Propeller Backpack for Lazy Skiers

At first glance, it looks eerily similar to Inspector Gadget’s Propeller Cap, except it’s a backpack. [Samm Sheperd] built a Propeller Backpack (video, embedded after the break) which started off as a fun project but almost ended up setting him on fire.

Finding himself snowed in during a spell of cold weather, he found enough spare RC and ‘copter parts to put his crazy idea in action. He built a wooden frame, fixed the big Rimfire 50CC outrunner motor and prop to it, slapped on a battery pack and ESC, and zip-tied it all on to the carcass of an old backpack.

Remote control in hand, and donning a pair of Ski’s, he did a few successful trial runs. It looks pretty exciting watching him zip by in the snowy wilderness. Well, winter passed by, and he soon found himself in sunny California. The Ski’s gave way to a bike, and a local airfield served as a test track. He even manages to put in some exciting runs on the beach. But the 10S 4000 mAH batteries seem to be a tad underpowered to his liking, and the motor could do with a larger propeller. He managed to source a 12S 10,000 mAH battery pack, but that promptly blew out his Aerostar ESC during the very first static trial.

He then decided to rebuild it from ground up. A ten week welding course that he took to gain some college credits proved quite handy. He built a new TiG welded Aluminium frame which was stronger and more lightweight than the earlier wooden one. He even thoughtfully added a propeller safety guard after some of his followers got worried, although it doesn’t look very effective to us. A bigger propeller was added and the old burnt out ESC was replaced with a new one. It was time for another static trial before heading out in to the wide open snow again. And that’s when things immediately went south. [Samm] was completely unaware as the new ESC gloriously burst in to flames (8:00 into the third video), and it took a while for him to realize why his video recording friend was screaming at him. Check out the three part video series after the break to follow the story of this hack. For a bonus, check out the 90 year old gent who stops by for a chat on planes and flying (8:25 in the third video).

But [Samm] isn’t letting this setback pin him down. He’s promised to take this to a logical finish and build a reliable, functional Propeller Backpack some time soon. This isn’t his first rodeo building oddball hacks. Check out his experiment on Flying Planes With Squirrel Cages.

We seem to be catching a wave of wind-powered transportation hacks these days. Hackaday’s own [James Hobson] spent time in December on a similar, arguably safer, concept. He attached ducted fans to the back of a snowboard. We like this choice since flailing limbs won’t get caught in these types of fans.

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Tracking Index Test

In an earlier article, I covered Fire Hazard Tests that form an important part of safety testing for electronic/electrical products. We looked at the standards and equipment used for abnormal heat, glowing wire and flame tests. A typical compliance test report for an appliance, such as a toaster, will be a fairly long document reporting the results for a large number of tests. Among these, the section for “Heat and Fire” will usually have the results of a third test – Tracking. It’s a phenomena most of us have observed, but needs some explanation to understand what it means.

What is Tracking ?

Tracking is a surface phenomena on an insulating material. When you have two conducting terminals or tracks at a high voltage (higher than 100 VAC) separated by an insulator, a combination of environmental factors such as dust, moisture and thermal cycling could cause minute leakage currents to flow on the surface between the conductors. Over time, the deposits carbonize and the surface current increases. Eventually, a carbon track forms over the surface of the insulator making it conductive at a particular “tracking” voltage. Finally, a short circuit is created between the two conductors which may also lead to fire. Worse, it’s possible that the tracking current could be lower than the rating of the protective fuse in the appliance, which will prevent the electrical supply from being cut off, creating a fire hazard. Tracking can be avoided by using the right kind of insulating materials and adequate creepage and clearance distances. One of the reasons for adding a slot between adjacent high voltage terminations or tracks on a PCB is to take care of tracking.

Test Standards

It’s impossible to conduct such tests according to real world conditions, so a standardized procedure is needed which can produce results that allow different materials to be compared. The IEC’s Technical sub-committee 15E was previously entrusted with the work of creating and maintaining tracking index methods and standards. Considering the importance of this standard and its wide implications, this work is now handled by TC 112 — Evaluation and qualification of electrical insulating materials and systems.

TC 112’s document IEC 60112 defines a “standardized method for the determination of the proof and the comparative tracking indices of solid insulating materials” for voltages up to 600 VAC, and provides information on how to design a suitable test equipment. The ASTM has an equivalent document — ASTM D3638 as does the UL — UL 746A-24. A more severe test is covered under IEC 60587 — “Electrical insulating materials used under severe ambient conditions – Test methods for evaluating resistance to tracking and erosion”. This test is often referred as the inclined plane tracking and erosion test and specifies test voltages up to 6 kV. But for now, let’s just look at the low voltage test as per IEC 60112.


A sample of at least 20 mm x 20 mm with a minimum thickness of 3 mm is required for testing, with a set of five samples being tested each time. If the test product cannot provide a sample of these dimensions, then tiles of the insulating material need to be specifically produced using the same moulding process as used in actual production. The sample is supported on a horizontal glass platform. Two chisel-edged platinum electrodes are placed over the sample, separated by a gap of 4 mm. A voltage adjustable between 100 to 600 VAC is applied to these electrodes. The electrodes weigh down on the sample with a force of 1 N via dead weights.

The electrical supply to the electrodes needs to be current limited. For all voltages between 100 V to 600 V, the short circuit current across the electrodes must be limited to 1 A. This is usually done by means of a series variable resistor (rheostat). In some equipment designs, the Variac (variable auto-transformer) for adjusting the voltage is mechanically coupled to the rheostat ensuring the short circuit current is always limited to 1 A. An additional, smaller value rheostat is used for minor trimming. The standard further specifies that after setting the open circuit voltage, the measured voltage at 1 A current should not drop by more than 10% (load regulation). This makes transformer design a bit tricky. At low voltages, there isn’t enough magnetic coupling between the windings, causing higher drops at lower voltages. One solution is to use two secondary windings of about 350 V each which are connected in parallel for test voltage below 300 V, and in series for higher voltages. But there are other ways of satisfying this requirement too. It’s just one example of how the designer needs to look at every requirement in the standard and then figure out how to implement it in the test equipment.

The short-circuit current is just a limiting requirement of the electrical source connected to the electrodes. The more critical setting is the “tripping” current which needs to be set to 0.5 A above which the source must be disconnected from the electrodes. The tripping sensor needs to have a time delay of two seconds before it trips and the reason for this setting will become clear a bit later.

Environmental contamination is simulated by a salt solution — usually ammonium chloride having a concentration of 0.1%. An alternate solution is prescribed for more stringent testing. While applying the test voltage across the electrodes, one drop of the electrolyte is dropped over the test sample between the electrodes every 30 seconds for a total of 50 drops. The size of each drop needs to be adjusted such that 50 drops weigh roughly 1.075 grams and 20 drops weigh 0.430 grams. This can be achieved by careful selection of the needle diameter used for the drops as well as the delivery mechanism. Some designs use a gravity feed, solenoid operated device while others use a peristaltic pump. Another way is to use an air pump which forces the liquid out of its container by forcing air in to it. The test sample passes if it survives 50 drops without triggering the over current sensor. The sample fails if the over-current sensor gets triggered or if it catches fire, at which point the electrical supply needs to be disconnected immediately.

When a drop falls over the sample across the electrodes, most of the electrical current flows through the liquid since it is conductive. This causes a current spike that quickly boils off most of the salt solution, and generally lasts for a second or two. During this two-second duration, the over-current device is programmed not to trip. With most of the water having evaporated, some of the salt is left behind as a deposit over the sample, which causes “tracking” current to flow over its surface. A while later, you will also notice some scintillation effect (sparking) as the leftover salt crystals burn out when the current flows through them.

The results of a tracking test are reported in two different ways. A Proof Tracking Index test (PTI) is usually carried out at 175 V to confirm that the sample can survive 50 drops. On the other hand, a Comparative Tracking Index test is performed over a range of voltages, incrementing the test voltage by 25 V for each succeeding test. The number of drops is always set at 50. The CTI value is determined as the highest voltage at which the sample withstands 50 drops. In some cases, the sample must also pass the test at 25 V less than the CTI voltage for a duration of 100 drops. Depending on the CTI value, the insulator is assigned a Performance Level Category with PLC0 being the highest and PLC5 being the lowest.

It’s always fascinating looking at a sample undergoing the Tracking Index Test — check out the video below. When you look at data sheets for plastic materials, the Tracking Index value will always be reported under it’s electrical properties. Paper Phenolic, which was the PCB substrate used before the advent of fibreglass, usually has a very low tracking index value (depending on its composition), ranging between 100 V to 175 V. On the other hand, depending on composition and filler materials, fibreglass substrates such as FR4 can have CTI values ranging from 175 V up to about 300 V or higher.

If you have ever seen a PCB (not the components on it), give off Magic Smoke, then you’ve seen the effects of Tracking in action. With good design, taking into consideration proper creepage and clearance distances, it is one of the failure modes which can be prevented.

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Stereo Microscope Teardown

Stereo microscopes are very handy tools, especially for a lot of hackers who now regularly assemble, test and debug SMD circuits using parts as small as grains of sand. We have seen a lot of stereo microscope hacks here at Hackaday, so it helps to take a look inside one to understand how they work. Thanks to [noq2]’s teardown of a Wild Heerbrugg model M8 stereo microscope, we get to do exactly that. His M8 is from the mid-1970s, but it is in mint condition and doesn’t look like it’s over 40 years old. Despite being so old, [noq2] still uses it regularly, so the teardown is not super detailed. But there’s enough for us to get a good idea of how they work.

Stereo microscopes use one of two optical designs — the Common Main Objective (CMO) optical system and the Greenough optical system. [MicroscopeWorld] has a nice blog post explaining these two types and their pros and cons. Not surprisingly, stereo microscopes, just like other optical instruments, are highly modular to allow attaching various extensions, adapters and accessories. The Wild M8 uses the CMO design and its main parts are the binocular head, the main body and the objective lens.

The binocular head consists of the two eyepieces and a pair of prisms that create the binocular split. The alignment of these prisms is critical and they must not be disturbed in their mounting cages. The prism cages have a sliding adjustment to help set the interpupillary distance. The main body contains the zoom and magnification optics and the related mechanics. [noq2] is impressed with the lack of plastics used in the construction of these fine instruments. Finally, there’s the huge objective lens, which [noq2] feels is the Achilles heel of the instrument. Its design is not plan-apochromatic and that causes significant chromatic aberrations, especially when trying to capture photographs. Thankfully, there are other objective lenses which can be used, including some DIY adapter solutions. The Wild Heerbrugg brand was taken over by Leica who still produce a range of stereo microscopes under that badge. If you have one of these microscopes, [noq2] suggests you head over the French forum at where you’ll find extensive information about them.

As a bonus, also check out [noq2]’s ghetto lighting solution for his microscope – a pair of high power LED’s attached to salvaged heatsinks, and mounted on the frame of an old 80 mm cooling fan. The fan frame is perfect since it is the right size to slide over the objective lens. If you’re looking for a more capable lighting solution for your microscope, then check out “AZIZ! Light!”, a microscope ring light with a number of different features.

Sudo Make Me a Sandwich

How do you like your Ham and Cheese sandwich? If you answered “I prefer it beefy”, look no further than [William Osman]’s Vin Diesel Ham and Cheese Sandwich! [Osman]’s blog tagline is “There’s science to do” but he is the first to admit this is science gone too far. When one of his followers, [Restroom Sounds], commented “Please sculpt a bust of [Vin Diesel] using laser cut cross-sections of laser sliced ham”, he just had to do it.

His friend [CameraManJohn] modeled the bust using Maya and [Osman] has provided links to download the files in case there’s the remote possibility that someone else wants to try this out. They picked the cheapest packs of sliced ham they could get from the supermarket — so technically, they did not actually laser slice the ham. For help with generating the slice outlines, they found the Slicer app for Autodesk’s Fusion 360 which did exactly what needed to be done. The app converts the 3D model into individual cross sections, similar to an MRI. It helps to measure the thickness of various samples of your raw material so that the Slicer output is not too stretched (or squished). The result is a set of numbered 2D drawings that can be sent to your laser cutter.

The rest of the video scores pretty high on the gross-o-meter, as [Osman] goes about laser cutting slices of ham (and a few slices of cheese), tasting laser cut ham (for Science, of course), and trying to prevent his computer from getting messed up. In the end, the sandwich actually turns out looking quite nice, although we will not comment on its taste. A pair of googly eyes adds character to the bust.

One problem is that the Slicer app does not optimise its results for efficient packing. with the smallest part occupying the same bounding box as the largest. This leads to a lot of wasted pieces of ham slices to be thrown away. [Bill] is still wondering what to do with his awesome sandwich, so if you have suggestions, chime in with your comments after you’ve seen the video linked below. If you know [Vin Diesel], let him know.

This isn’t [Osman]’s first adventure with crazy food hacks — here are a few tasty examples: a Toast-Bot that Butters For You (sometimes), a Laser-Cut Gingerbread Trailer Home, and a Pumpkin-Skinned BattleBot.

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