Hackaday Links: March 15, 2020

Just a few weeks ago in the Links article, we ran a story about Tanner Electronics, the Dallas-area surplus store that was a mainstay of the hacker and maker scene in the area. At the time, Tanner’s owners were actively looking for a new, downsized space to move into, and they were optimistic that they’d be able to find something. But it appears not to be, as we got word this week from James Tanner that the store would be shutting its doors after 40 years in business. We’re sad to see anyone who’s supported the hardware hacking scene be unable to make a go of it, especially after four decades of service. But as we pointed out in “The Death of Surplus”, the center of gravity of electronics manufacturing has shifted dramatically in that time, and that’s changed the surplus market forever. We wish the Tanner’s the best of luck, and ask those in the area to stop by and perhaps help them sell off some of their inventory before they close the doors on May 31.

Feel like getting your inner Gollum on video but don’t know where to begin? Open source motion capture might be the place to start, and Chordata will soon be here to help. We saw Chordata as an entry in the 2018 Hackaday Prize; they’ve come a long way since then and are just about to open up their Kickstarter. Check out the video for an overview of what Chordata can do.

Another big name in the open-source movement has been forced out of the organization he co-founded. Eric S. Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar and co-founder and former president of the Open Source Initiative has been removed from mailing lists and banned from communicating with the group. Raymond, known simply as ESR, reports that this was in response to “being too rhetorically forceful” in his dissent from proposed changes to OSD, the core documents that OSI uses to determine if software is truly open source. Nobody seems to be saying much about the behavior that started the fracas.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the newly emerged SARS-CoV-2 virus, has been spreading across the globe, causing panic and claiming lives. It’s not without its second-order effects either, of course, as everything from global supply chains to conferences and meetings have been disrupted. And now, coronavirus can be blamed for delaying the ESA/Russian joint ExoMars mission. The mission is to include a Russian-built surface platform for meteorological and biochemical surveys, plus the ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover. Program scientists are no longer able to travel and meet with their counterparts to sort out issues, severely crimping productivity and forcing the delay. Social distancing and working from home can only take you so far, especially when you’re trying to get to Mars. We wonder if NASA’s Perseverance will suffer a similar fate.

Speaking of social distancing, if you’ve already decided to lock the doors and hunker down to wait out COVID-19, you’ll need something to keep you from going stir crazy. One suggestion: learn a new skill, like PCB design. TeachMePCB is offering a free rigid PCB design course starting March 28. If you’re a newbie, or even if you’ve had some ad hoc design experience, this could be a great way to productively while away some time. And if that doesn’t work for you, check out Bartosz Ciechanowski’s Gears page. It’s an interactive lesson on why gears look like they do, and the math behind power transmission. Ever wonder why gear teeth have an involute shape? Bartosz will fix you up.

Stay safe out there, everyone. And wash those hands!

Review: Testdriving LibrePCB Shows That It’s Growing Up Fast

There are a host of PCB CAD tools at the disposal of the electronic designer from entry-level to multi-thousand-dollar workstation software. It’s a field in which most of the players are commercial, and for the open-source devotee there have traditionally been only two choices. Both KiCad and gEDA are venerable packages with legions of devoted fans, but it is fair to say that they both present a steep learning curve for newcomers. There is however another contender in the world of open-source PCB CAD, in the form of the up-and-coming LibrePCB.

This GPL-licensed package has only been in development for a few years. LibrePCB brought out its first official release a little over a year ago, and now stands at version 0.1.3 with builds for GNU/Linux, Windows, MacOS, and FreeBSD. It’s time to download it and run it through its paces, to see whether it’s ready to serve its purpose.

Continue reading “Review: Testdriving LibrePCB Shows That It’s Growing Up Fast”

KiCad Action Plugins

The last two years has been a particularly exciting time for KiCad, for users, casual contributors, and for the core developers too. Even so, there are many cool new features that are still in process. One bottleneck with open-source development of complex tools like KiCad is the limited amount of time that developers can devote for the project. Action plugins stand to both reduce developer load and increase the pace of development by making it easier to add your own functionality to the already extensible tool.

Sometime around version 4.0.7 (correct us if we’re wrong), it was decided to introduce “action plugins” for KiCad, with the intention that the larger community of contributors can add features that were not on the immediate road map or the core developers were not working on. The plugin system is a framework for extending the capabilities of KiCad using shared libraries. If you’re interested in creating action plugins, check out documentation at KiCad Plugin System and Python Plugin Development for Pcbnew. Then head over to this forum post for a roundup of Tutorials on python scripting in pcbnew, and figure out how to Register a python plugin inside pcbnew Tools menu. Continue reading “KiCad Action Plugins”

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”