Open Source High Speed SiGe IC Production For Free!

We’ve covered the Tiny Tapeout project a few times on these pages, and while getting your digital IC design out there onto actual silicon for a low cost is super cool, it is still somewhat limited. Now, along comes the German FMD QNC project funding MPW (multi-project wafer) runs not in bog standard Silicon CMOS but Silicon-Germanium bipolar technology. And this is accessible to you and me, of course, provided you have the skills to design in this high-speed analog technology.

The design can be submitted via Github by cloning the IHP-Open-DesignLib repo, adding your design, and issuing a pull request. If your submission passes the correctness checks and is selected, it will be fabricated in-house by the IHP pilot line facility, which means it will take at least four months to complete.  However, there are a few restrictions. The design must be open source, DRC complete (obviously!) and below a somewhat limiting two square millimetres. Bonus points for selecting your project can be had for good documentation and a unique quality, i.e., they shouldn’t have too many similar designs in the project archive. Also, you don’t get to keep the silicon samples, but you may rent them for up to two years for evaluation. In fact, anybody can rent them.  Still, it’s a valuable service to trial a new technique or debug a design and a great way to learn and hone a craft that is difficult to get into by traditional means. Such projects would be an excellent source of verifiable CV experience points we reckon!

If you fancy getting your hands on your own silicon, but bipolar SiGe is a bit of a stretch, look no further than our guide to Tiny Tapeout. But don’t take our word for it—listen to the creator himself!

An Easy Transparent Edge Lit Display

Displays are crucial to modern life; they are literally everywhere. But modern flat-panel LCDs and cheap 7-segment LED displays are, well, a bit boring. When we hackers want to display the progress of time, we want something more interesting, hence the plethora of projects using Nixie tubes and various incantations of edge-lit segmented units. Here is [upir] with their take on the simple edge-lit acrylic 7-segment design, with a great video explanation of all the steps involved.

Engraving the acrylic sheets by hand using 3D printed stencils

The idea behind this concept is not new. Older displays of this type used tiny tungsten filament bulbs and complex light paths to direct light to the front of the display. The modern version, however, uses edge-lit panels with a grid of small LEDs beneath each segment, which are concealed within a casing. This design relies on the principle of total internal reflection, created by the contrast in refractive indices of acrylic and air. Light entering the panel from below at an angle greater than 42 degrees from normal is entirely reflected inside the panel. Fortunately, tiny LEDs have a wide dispersion angle, so if they are positioned close enough to the edge, they can guide sufficient light into the panel. Once this setup is in place, the surface can be etched or engraved using a CNC machine or a laser cutter. A rough surface texture is vital for this process, as it disrupts some of the light paths, scattering and directing some of it sideways to the viewer. Finally, to create your display, design enough parallel-stacked sheets for each segment of the display—seven in this case, but you could add more, such as an eighth for a decimal point.

How you arrange your lighting is up to you, but [upir] uses an off-the-shelf ESP32-S3 addressable LED array. This design has a few shortcomings, but it is a great start—if a little overkill for a single digit! Using some straightforward Arduino code, one display row is set to white to guide light into a single-segment sheet. To form a complete digital, you illuminate the appropriate combination of sheets. To engrave the sheets, [upir] wanted to use a laser cutter but was put off by the cost. A CNC 3018 was considered, but the choice was bewildering, so they just went with a hand-engraving pick, using a couple of 3D printed stencils as a guide. A sheet holder and light masking arrangement were created in Fusion 360, which was extended into a box to enclose the LED array, which could then be 3D printed.

If you fancy an edge-lit clock (you know you do) check out this one. If wearables are more your thing, there’s also this one. Finally, etched acrylic isn’t anywhere near as good as glass, so if you’ve got a vinyl cutter to hand, this simple method is an option.

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Build Your Own Core Rope Memory Module?

[Luizão] wanted to create some hardware to honour the memory of the technology used to put man on the moon and chose the literal core of the project, that of the hardware used to store the software that provided the guidance. We’re talking about the magnetic core rope memory used in the Colossus and Luminary guidance computers. [Luizão] didn’t go totally all out and make a direct copy but instead produced a scaled-down but supersized demo board with just eight cores, each with twelve addressable lines, producing a memory with 96 bits.

The components chosen are all big honking through-hole parts, reminiscent of those available at the time, nicely laid out in an educational context. You could easily show someone how to re-code the memory with only a screwdriver to hand; no microscope is required for this memory. The board was designed in EasyEDA, and is about as simple as possible. Being an AC system, this operates in a continuous wave fashion rather than a pulsed operation mode, as a practical memory would. A clock input drives a large buffer transistor, which pushes current through one of the address wires via a 12-way rotary switch. The cores then act as transformers. If the address wire passes through the core, the signal is passed to the secondary coil, which feeds a simple rectifying amplifier and lights the corresponding LED. Eight such circuits operate in parallel, one per bit. Extending this would be easy.

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Tired With Your Robot? Why Not Eat It?

Have you ever tired of playing with your latest robot invention and wished you could just eat it? Well, that’s exactly what a team of researchers is investigating. There is a fully funded research initiative (not an April Fools’ joke, as far as we know) delving into the possibilities of edible electronics and mechanical systems used in robotics. The team, led by EPFL in Switzerland, combines food process engineering, printed and molecular electronics, and soft robotics to create fully functional and practical robots that can be consumed at the end of their lifespan. While the concept of food-based robots may seem unusual, the potential applications in medicine and reducing waste during food delivery are significant driving factors behind this idea.

The Robofood project (some articles are paywalled!) has clearly made some inroads into the many components needed. Take, for example, batteries. Normally, ingesting a battery would result in a trip to the emergency room, but an edible battery can be made from an anode of riboflavin (found in almonds and egg whites) and a cathode of quercetin, as we covered a while ago. The team proposed another battery using activated charcoal (AC) electrodes on a gelatin substrate. Water is split into its constituent oxygen and hydrogen by applying a voltage to the structure. These gasses adsorb into the AC surface and later recombine back into the water, providing a usable one-volt output for ten minutes with a similar charge time. This simple structure is reusable and, once expired, dissolves harmlessly in (simulated) gastric fluid in twenty minutes. Such a device could potentially power a GI-tract exploratory robot or other sensor devices.

But what use is power without control? (as some car tyre advert once said) Microfluidic control circuits can be created using a stack of edible materials, primarily oleogels, like ethyl cellulose, mixed with an organic oil such as olive oil. A microfluidic NOT gate combines a pressure-controlled switch with a fluid resistor as the ‘pull-up’. The switch has a horizontal flow channel with a blockage that is cleared when a control pressure is applied. As every electronic engineer knows, once you have a controlled switch and a resistor, you can build NOT gates and all the other logic functions, flip-flops, and memories. Although they are very slow, the control components are importantly edible.

Edible electronics don’t feature here often, but we did dig up this simple edible chocolate bunny that screams when you bite it. Who wouldn’t want one of those?

Tiny Tapeout 4: A PWM Clone Of Covox Speech Thing

Tiny Tapout is an interesting project, leveraging the power of cloud computing and collaborative purchasing to make the mysterious art of IC design more accessible for hardware hackers. [Yeo Kheng Meng] is one such hacker, and they have produced their very first custom IC for use with their retrocomputing efforts. As they lament, they left it a little late for the shuttle run submission deadline, so they came up with a very simple project with the equivalent behaviour of the Covox Speech Thing, which is just a basic R-2R ladder DAC hanging from a PC parallel port.

The computed gate-level routing of the ASIC layout

The plan was to capture an 8-bit input bus and compare it against a free-running counter. If the input value is larger than the counter, the output goes high; otherwise, it goes low. This produces a PWM waveform representing the input value. Following the digital output with an RC low-pass filter will generate an analogue representation. It’s all very simple stuff. A few details to contend with are specific to Tiny Tapout, such as taking note of the enable and global resets. These are passed down from the chip-level wrapper to indicate when your design has control of the physical IOs and is selected for operation. [Yeo] noticed that the GitHub post-synthesis simulation failed due to not taking note of the reset condition and initialising those pesky flip-flops.

After throwing the design down onto a Mimas A7 Artix 7 FPGA board for a quick test, data sent from a parallel port-connected PC popped out as a PWM waveform as expected, and some test audio could be played. Whilst it may be true that you don’t have to prototype on an FPGA, and some would argue that it’s a lot of extra effort for many cases, without a good quality graphical simulation and robust testbench, you’re practically working blind. And that’s not how working chips get made.

If you want to read into Tiny Tapeout some more, then we’ve a quick guide for that. Or, perhaps hear it direct from the team instead?

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2024 Business Card Challenge: Integrated Game Card

[Dan Schnur] has a simple strategy to ensure their business card stays on the client’s desk and doesn’t just get lobbed in a drawer: make it into a simple gaming platform. This entry into the 2024 Business Card Challenge is based around the tinyjoypad project, integrating an SSD1306 OLED display, joypad, and push button.

Powered by the superstar ATTiny85, the electronics are really not all that much, just a sprinkling of passives to support the display and the six switch inputs from the joystick and push button. Or at least, that’s how much we can glean from the PCB images, as the PCB design files are not provided in the project GitHub.

Leaving the heavy lifting of the software to the tinyjoypad project, the designer can concentrate on the actual job at hand and the reason the business card exists to stay at the forefront of the client’s mind. In the meantime, the card can be a useful distraction for those idle moments. A few such distractions include a tiny version of Missile Command (as shown above), tiny tris, and a very cut-down Q-bert.  Sadly, that last game isn’t quite the same without that distinctive sound.

A Simple Laser Harp MIDI Instrument

Craig Lindley is a technical author and a prolific maker of things. This simple project was his first attempt to create a laser harp MIDI device. While on vacation, Craig saw a laser harp with only three strings and decided to improve upon it by expanding it to twelve strings. The principle of operation is straightforward: twelve cheap diode laser modules aim a beam towards an LDR, which changes resistance if the light level changes when the beam is interrupted.

The controller is a simple piece of perf board, with a Wemos D1 mini ESP32 module flanked by some passives, a barrel socket for power, and the usual DIN connector for connecting the MIDI instrument. Using the ESP32 is a smart choice, removing all the need for configuration and user indication from the physical domain and pushing it onto a rarely-needed webpage. After a false start, attempting to use a triangular frame arrangement, [Craig] settled upon a simple linear arrangement of beams held within a laser-cut wooden box frame. Since these laser modules are quite small, some aluminium rod was machined to make some simple housings to push them into, making them easier to mount in the frame and keeping them nicely aligned with their corresponding LDR.

Sadly, the magnetic attachment method [Craig] used to keep the LDRs in place and aligned with the laser didn’t work as expected, so it was necessary to reach for the hot glue. We’ve all done that!

An interesting addition was using an M5 stack Unit-Synth module for those times when a proper MIDI synthesiser was unavailable. Making this luggable was smart, as people are always fascinated with laser harps. That simple internal synth makes travelling to shows and events a little easier.

Laser harps are nothing new here; we have covered plenty over the years. Like this nice build, which is more a piece of art than an instrument, one which looks just like a real harp and sounds like one, too, due to the use of the Karplus-Strong algorithm to mimic string vibrations.