Flexible PCBs Hack Chat With OSH Park

Join us Thursday at noon Pacific time for the Flexible PCBs Hack Chat with Drew and Chris from OSH Park!
Note the different day from our usual Hack Chat schedule!
Printed circuit boards have been around for decades, and mass production of them has been an incalculable boon to the electronics industry. But turning the economics of PCB production around and making it accessible to small-scale producers and even home experimenters is a relatively recent development, and one which may have an even broader and deeper impact on the industry in the long run.

And now, as if professional PCBs at ridiculous prices weren’t enough, the home-gamer now has access to flexible PCBs. From wearables to sensor applications, flex PCBs have wide-ranging applications and stand to open up new frontiers to the hardware hacker. We’ve even partnered with OSH Park in the Flexible PCB Contest, specifically to stretch your flexible wings and get you thinking beyond flat, rigid PCBs.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Thursday, May 23 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Thursday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Byte Sized Pieces Help The KiCad Go Down

It’s no surprise that we here at Hackaday are big fans of Fritzing KiCad. But to a beginner (or a seasoned veteran!) the learning curve can be cliff-like in its severity. In 2016 we published a piece linking to project by friend-of-the-Hackaday [Chris Gammell] called Contextual Electronics, his project to produce formalized KiCad training. Since then the premier “Getting to Blinky” video series has become an easy recommendation for anyone looking to get started with Libre EDA. After a bit of a hiatus [Chris] is back with bite sized videos exploring every corner of the KiCad-o-verse.

A Happy [Chris] comes free with every video
The original Getting to Blinky series is a set of 10 videos up to 30 minutes long that walks through everything from setting up the the KiCad interface through soldering together some perfect purple PCBs. They’re exhaustive in coverage and a great learning resource, but it’s mentally and logistically difficult to sit down and watch hours of content. Lately [Chris] has taken a new tack by producing shorter 5 to 10 minute snapshots of individual KiCad features and capabilities. We’ve enjoyed the ensuing wave of learning in our Youtube recommendations ever since!

Selecting traces to rip up

Some of the videos seem simple but are extremely useful. Like this one on finding those final disconnected connections in the ratsnest. Not quite coverage of a major new feature, but a topic near and dear to any layout engineer’s heart. Here’s another great tip about pulling reference images into your schematics to make life easier. A fantastic wrapped up in a tidy three minute video. How many ways do you think you can move parts and measure distances in the layout editor? Chris covers a bunch we hadn’t seen before, even after years using KiCad! We learned just as much in his coverage of how to rip up routed tracks. You get the idea.

We could summarize the Youtube channel, but we aren’t paid by the character. Head on down to the channel and find something to learn. Make sure to send [Chris] tips on content you want him to produce!

KiCon Gets Our KiCad Conference On

Oh, what’s KiCon you say? KiCon is the first dedicated conference on our favorite libre EDA tool: KiCad, organized by friend of Hackaday Chris Gammell and scheduled for April 26 and 27th in Chicago.

Having stuffed ourselves full of treats through the holidays, followed by sleeping through the calm winter months, we find ourselves once again facing the overwhelming tsunami of conference season. This year things are heating up early, and you’ll find a lot of Hackaday staff are headed to Chicago for KiCon.

Now that early selection of talks has been released, the end of April can’t come soon enough. Being user focused the conference is centered around what people make using the tool, and how it can be leveraged to improve your next project. Wayne Stambaugh, the project lead for KiCad itself, will be on hand to talk about the state of the tool and what the road map looks like from here. There will be a pair of talks on effective version control and applying the practice of continuous integration and deployment to the EDA world. We’ll hear about methods for working with distributed project members and tips for designing easy to learn beginner soldering kits. And there will be two talks on RF and microwave design, one of which we hope will teach us how to use that mysterious toolbar with the squiggly lines.

For an extra dash of flavor there will be a few Hackaday staff participating in the festivities. is making the flight over to present a talk about how to quickly generate and use 3D models in FreeCAD, something we’re very interested in applying to our messy part libraries. Kerry Scharfglass will be around to walk through how to lay out a manufacturing line and design the test tools that sit on it. And our illustrious Editor in Chief Mike Szczys will be roaming the halls in search of excellent hacks to explore and brains to pick.

Interested in attending or volunteering for the conference? Now is the time to buy your tickets and/or apply as a volunteer!

Of course there’s a ton of fun and games that surround KiCon. Hackaday will be hosting another edition of our always exciting bring-a-hack the evening of Saturday April 27th after official activities wrap up. Plan to stop by and enjoy a beverage at this gathering of like minded hackers who are showing off awesome toys. We’ll get more location details out soon, but for now, grab a ticket to the con and make your travel arrangements.

Cool Tools: Deus Ex Autorouter

The first thing you probably asked yourself when learning how to lay out PCBs was “can’t the computer do this?” which inevitably led to the phrase “never trust the autorouter!”. Even if it hooks up a few traces the result will probably be strange to human eyes; not a design you’d want to use.

But what if the autorouter was better? What if it was so far removed from the autorouter you know that it was something else? That’s the technology that JITX provides. JITX is a company that has developed new tools that can translate a coarse textual specification of a board to KiCAD outputs autonomously.

Continue reading “Cool Tools: Deus Ex Autorouter”

Advanced Techniques For Using Git With KiCAD

For most developers “distributed version control” probably means git. But by itself git doesn’t work very well with binary files such as images, zip files and the like because git doesn’t know how to make sense of the structure of an arbitrary blobs of bytes. So when trying to figure out how to track changes in design files created by most EDA tools git doesn’t get the nod and designers can be trapped in SVN hell. It turns out though KiCAD’s design files may not have obvious extensions like .txt, they are fundamentally text files (you might know that if you’ve ever tried to work around some of KiCAD’s limitations). And with a few tweaks from [jean-noël]’s guide you’ll be diffing and merging your .pro’s and .sch’s with aplomb.

There are a couple sections to the document (which is really meant as an on boarding to another tool, which we’ve gotten to in another post). The first chunk describes which files should be tracked by the repo and which the .gitignore can be configured to avoid. If that didn’t make any sense it’s worth the time learning how to keep a clean repo with the magic .gitignore file, which git will look for to see if there are any file types or paths it should avoid staging.

The second section describes how you can use two nifty git features, cleaning and smudging, to dynamically modify files as they are checked in and out of the repo. [jean-noël]’s observation is that certain files get touched by KiCAD even if there are no user facing changes, which can clutter patch sets with irrelevant changes. His suggested filters prevent this by stripping those changes out as files get checked in. Pretty slick.

Autodesk Introduces Parametric Part Generation

The hardest part of any PCB design is adding parts and components. You shouldn’t use random part libraries, and creating your own part libraries is just a pain. Why have we endured this pain for so long, especially considering that most components follow a standard? Add in the fact that 3D modeling and rendering a board in a mechanical CAD tool is now a thing, making creating your own part libraries even more involved.

To solve this problem, Autodesk has introduced library.io, a tool to parametrically generate component footprints for Eagle and 3D models for Fusion360. Given that most parts follow a standard — QFP, TO-, DFN, or SOT23 — this is now the easiest way to create a new part in Eagle with its own 3D model that allows you to bring it into mechanical CAD tools.

An overview parametric parts generation is written up on the Autodesk forums, and covers what is possible with this new tool. There are actually two distinct versions, one is a web-based app that allows you to create packages and footprints parametrically in your browser and export them as a library. The other version of the tool is integrated with Eagle and allows you to create a new component parametrically from within Eagle.

This is a far cry from the standard method of creating new footprints. Instead of toiling over a datasheet and dropping correctly sized pads onto a grid, creating a new parametric footprint is as easy as copying a few numbers. In addition to the new parametric design feature, there’s a new tool in Eagle that does away with placing and naming pins for symbols. Now you can simply cut and paste a list of pins from the datasheet.

It should be noted that everything created with the library.io tool can be downloaded and used offline. Combine that with the recent news that KiCad can now ingest Eagle board and schematic files, and you have a way to create parametric footprints in everyone’s favorite Open Source PCB tool as well.

What’s Coming In KiCad Version 5

Way back in the day, at least five years ago, if you wanted to design a printed circuit board your best option was Eagle. Now, Eagle is an Autodesk property, the licensing model has changed (although there’s still a free version, people) and the Open Source EDA suite KiCad is getting better and better. New developers are contributing to the project, and by some measures, KiCad is now the most popular tool to develop Open Source hardware.

At FOSDEM last week, [Wayne Stambaugh], project lead of KiCad laid out what features are due in the upcoming release of version 5. KiCad just keeps improving, and these new features are really killer features that will make everyone (unjustly) annoyed with Eagle’s new licensing very happy.

Although recent versions of KiCad have made improvements to the way part and footprint libraries are handled, the big upcoming change is that footprint libraries will be installed locally. The Github plugin for library management — a good idea in theory — is no longer the default. Spice simulation is also coming to KiCad. The best demo of the upcoming Spice integration is this relatively old video demonstrating how KiCad turns a schematic into graphs of voltage and current.

The biggest news, however, is the new ability to import Eagle projects. [Wayne] demoed this live on stage, importing an Eagle board and schematic of an Arduino Mega and turning it into a KiCad board and schematic in a matter of seconds. It’s not quite perfect yet, but it’s close and very, very good.

There are, of course, other fancy features that make designing schematics and PCBs easier. Eeschema is getting a better configuration dialog, improved bus and wire dragging, and improved junction handling. Pcbnew is getting rounded rectangle and complex pad shape support, direct export to STEP files, and you’ll soon be able to update the board from the schematic without updating the netlist file. Read that last feature again, slowly. It’s the best news we’ve ever heard.

Additionally, this is one of the rare times you get to hear [Wayne] speak. This means the argument over the pronunciation of KiCad is over. It’s ‘Key-CAD‘ not ‘Kai-CAD‘. You can check out the entirety of [Wayne]’s State of the KiCad talk below.

Continue reading “What’s Coming In KiCad Version 5”