Mechanical Integration With KiCad

Eagle and Fusion are getting all the respect for integrating electronic and mechanical design, but what about KiCad? Are there any tools out there that allow you to easily build an enclosure for your next printed circuit board? [Maurice] has one solution, and it seamlessly synchronizes KiCad and FreeCAD. KiCad will give you the board, FreeCAD will give you the enclosure, and together you have full ECAD and MCAD synchronization.

This trick comes in the form of a FreeCAD macro (on the Github, with a bunch of documentation) that loads a KiCad board and components into FreeCAD and export them as a STEP file. You can align the KiCad board in FreeCAD, convert STEPs to VRMLs, check interference and collision, and create an enclosure around a KiCad board.

KiCad has gotten some really great visualization tools over the past few years, and we would be remiss if we didn’t mention it’s one of the best ways to visualize a completed circuit board before heading to production. Taking that leap from electronic CAD to mechanical CAD is still something that’s relatively rare in the KiCad ecosystem, and more tools to make this happen is always wanted.

KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat

Join us Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat led by Anool Mahidharia!

The inaugural KiCon conference is kicking off this Friday in Chicago, and KiCad aficionados from all over the world are gathering to discuss anything and everything about the cross-platform, open-source electronic design automation platform. As you’d expect, Hackaday will have a presence at the conference, including a meet and greet after party. There’ll also be talks by a couple of our writers, including Anool Mahidharia, who’ll be taking time out of his trip to the States to drop by the Hack Chat with a preview of his talk, entitled “Fast 3D Model Creation with FreeCAD”.

Join us for the KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat this week with your questions about KiCad and FreeCAD. If you’ve got some expertise with electronic design tools, make sure you come by and contribute to the discussion too — we’d love to hear your insights. And as always, you can get your questions queued up by leaving a comment on the KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat event page and we’ll put them on the list for the Hack Chat discussion.

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 Wednesday, April 24, at noon, 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 Wednesday; 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!

Next Week Is KiCon: Come For The Talks, Stay For The Parties

KiCad is the electronic design automation software that lives at the intersection of electronic design and open source software. It’s seen a huge push in development over the last few years which has grown the suite into a mountain of powerful tools. To help better navigate that mountain, the first ever KiCad conference, KiCon, is happening next week in Chicago and Hackaday is hosting one of the afterparties.

The two days of talks take place on April 26th and 27th covering a multitude of topics. KiCad’s project leader, Wayne Stambaugh, will discuss the state of the development effort. You’ll find talks on best practices for using the software as an individual and as a team, how to avoid common mistakes, and when you should actually try to use the auto-router. You can learn about automating your design process with programs that generate footprints, by connecting it through git, and through alternate user interfaces. KiCad has 3D modeling to make sure your boards will fit their intended enclosures and talks will cover generating models in FreeCAD and rendering designs in both Fusion360 and Blender. Dust off your dark arts with RF and microwave design tips as well as simulating KiCad circuits in SPICE. If you can do it in KiCad, you’ll learn about it at KiCon.

Of course there’s a ton of fun to be had as interesting hackers from all over the world come together in the Windy City. Hackaday’s own Anool Mahidharia and Kerry Scharfglass will be presenting talks, and Mike Szczys will be in the audience. We anticipate an excellent “lobby con” where the conversations away from the stages are as interesting as the formal talks. And of course there are afterparties!

  • Friday 4/26 Pumping Station: One, the popular Chicago hackerspace now celebrating its 10 year anniversary, is hosting an afterparty (details TBA)
  • Saturday 4/27: Hackaday is hosting an after party at Jefferson Tap from 6-8:30. We’re providing beverages and light food for all who attended the conference.

If you still don’t have a ticket to KiCon, you better get one right now. We’re told that you can count what’s left on two hands. Supplyframe (Hackaday’s parent company) is a sponsor of KiCon, and we have two extra tickets that came with that sponsorship. We like seeing a diverse community at these events and have saved these tickets for people from under-represented groups (such as for example women, LGBT+, and people of color) in the hardware world. Email us directly for the tickets, your information will remain confidential.

We’re looking forward to seeing everyone next week!

Tucoplexing: A New Charliplex for Buttons and Switches

Figuring out the maximum number of peripherals which can be sensed or controlled with a minimum number of IOs is a classic optimization trap with a lot of viable solutions. The easiest might be something like an i2c IO expander, which would give you N outputs for 4 wires (SDA, SCL, Power, Ground). IO expanders are easy to interface with and not too expensive, but that ruins the fun. This is Hackaday, not optimal-cost-saving-engineer-aday! Accordingly there are myriad schemes for using high impedance modes, the directionality of diodes, analog RCs, and more to accomplish the same thing with maximum cleverness and minimum part cost. Tucoplexing is the newest variant we’ve seen, proven out by the the prolific [Micah Elizabeth Scott] (AKA [scanlime]) and not the first thing to be named after her cat Tuco.

[Micah’s] original problem was that she had a great 4 port USB switch with a crummy one button interface. Forget replacement; the hacker’s solution was to reverse and reprogram the micro to build a new interface that was easier to relocate on the workbench. Given limited IO the Tucoplex delivers 4 individually controllable LEDs and 4 buttons by mixing together a couple different concepts in a new way.

Up top we have 4 LEDs from a standard 3 wire Charlieplex setup. Instead of the remaining 2 LEDs from the 3 wire ‘plex at the bottom we have a two button Charlieplex pair plus two bonus buttons on an RC circuit. Given the scary analog circuit the scan method is pleasingly simple. By driving the R and T lines quickly the micro can check if there is a short, indicating a pressed switch. Once that’s established it can run the same scan again, this time pausing to let the cap charge before sensing. After releasing the line if there is no charge then the cap must have been shorted, meaning that switch was pressed. Else it must be the other non-cap switch. Check out the repo for hardware and firmware sources.

Last time we talked about a similar topic a bunch of readers jumped in to tell us about their favorite ways to add more devices to limited IOs. If you have more clever solutions to this problem, leave them below! If you want to see the Twitter thread with older schematics and naming of Tucoplexing look after the break.

Continue reading “Tucoplexing: A New Charliplex for Buttons and Switches”

Panelizing Boards In KiCad

Panelization of printed circuit boards is a very helpful trick for any PCB design tool to have. By panelizing boards, you can get them ready for automated assembly. You can put testing rigs right on the panel. You can combine different boards to reduce your PCB production cost. But Eagle, Fritzing, and KiCad don’t have proper panelization tools, only hacks and third-party tools to get something close to proper panelization. [Flemming] just created a new utility for KiCad that makes multiple copies of a board connected via mouse bites. It’s not complete panelization functionality, but for a lot of us, it’ll be good enough.

The video demo for this utility (try not to click on that because we’re going to blow some bandwidth with this link) starts off by importing a board into Pcbnew, making several copies of the board, arranging these boards to have 3-4mm spacing, and drawing ‘hint lines’ for the script, telling it where the mouse bites should go. The script runs, and boom, mouse bites and a panel.

This is a KiCad specific tool, and we’ve seen other tools for KiCad that make multiple copies of a board. We’ve also seen tools that take raw Gerbers of multiple designs and turn them into a panel. [Flemming]’s efforts are the closest we’ve seen to having all the features you want out of a panelization utility bild exclusively for KiCad.

While this tool will give you a set of Gerbers with multiple copies of a board connected with mouse bites, this is not in any way a complete solution to panelizing PCBs. If you’re panelizing PCBs, you’ll want to add fiducials in the corners of the full panel, which this tool does not allow you to do. You might want to have one complete ‘frame’ as a panel — effectively a rectangular piece of fiberglass that holds all your PCBs — which this tool does not allow you to do. Since you don’t get a frame, it’s impossible to run programming or testing signals to the frame that would be needed for assembly, but not necessary in production. That said, unless you’re going to spend thousand on Altium or use Open tools that have critical flaws such as GerberPanelizer, this is the best option you’ve got.

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.