Open Source Calculator Teaches us about Quality Documentation

Graphing calculators are one of those funny markets that never seem to change. Standardized testing has created a primordial stew of regulatory capture in which ancient technology thrives at modern retail prices while changing little. The NumWorks calculator certainly isn’t the first competitor to challenge the Texas Instruments dynasty with a more modern interface (and a design from this decade), but behind it’s subtle color pops and elegant lines lies the real gem; a fantastically well documented piece of open source hardware. The last time we wrote about the NumWorks, it was to demonstrate a pretty wild hack that embedded an entire Pi Zero but it’s worth drawing attention to the calculator itself.

Hackaday readers traveling to the NumWorks website might spy the section at the bottom of the page titled “Developers” with tantalizing links like “Hardware,” “Software,” and “GitHub.” These lead to a wealth of knowledge about how the product is put together and sources to build the enclosure and firmware yourself (the PCB schematic and layout sources seem to be missing, though there is this handy gerber viewer). However merely posting sources is a low bar NumWorks far exceeds.

How is the firmware put together? Here’s a handy architecture guide! Why did they choose C++ and what tradeoffs were made to fit everything in a resource constrained embedded system? Here’s a design guide! How exactly does the math engine take in text, comprehend the expression contained therein, and evaluate it? There’s a document for it! There’s even a multi-platform SDK setup guide.

Firmware documentation is old hat; we’ve come to expect (or at least hope!) for it. For us the most interesting documentation is actually for the mechanical and electrical systems. The EE guides start with part selection (with datasheet links) then move on to walkthroughs of major areas of the schematic. At this point is should be no surprise that the board has pads for a completely standard 10 pin ARM debug connector and documented test points for UART, SPI, and an SD card.

The mechanical pages read like a quick primer on design for injection molding and tricks to reduce assembly errors (called “poka-yoke“). Ever wondered what that funny frame plastic models come in is called? The NumWorks calculator’s buttons are made in one, and it’s called a “sprue”. There are pages describing each piece of the housing one at a time.

Treat yourself to a reading of NumWorks’ excellent documentation. And if you need a new calculator, maybe consider the open source option.

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Applications Open: Ada Lovelace Fellowships For 2018 Open Hardware Summit

The Open Source Hardware Association is now accepting applications for the Ada Lovelace fellowship which provides free admission to the Open Hardware Summit and a $500 travel stipend. One of OSHWA’s goals is to foster a more diverse community within open source. As part of this, Ada Lovelace Fellowships are open to women, LGBTA+, and people of color. There are a total of 10 fellowships available and applications are due by April 30th. The Open Hardware Summit will be held on September 27th at MIT.

The fellowship program, founded by Addie Wagenknecht and Alicia Gibb in 2013, builds on the ideal that Open Hardware is one way to reduce the barriers associated in access to technology. Removing some of the financial barriers associated with attending the Summit will help to ensure more people of diverse backgrounds are involved in shaping the Open Hardware world. In addition to the talks shared at the gathering, over the last several year OSWHA has been evolving the Open Hardware definition and an Open Hardware certification.

Disclaimer: [Christopher Wang] is a board member of the Open Source Hardware Association

Certification For Open Source Hardware Announced

Today at the Open Hardware Summit in Portland, Alicia Gibb and Michael Weinberg of the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) launched the Open Source Hardware Certification program. It’s live, and you can certify your own hardware as Open Hardware right now.

What Is Open Source Hardware?

Open Source Hardware can’t be defined without first discussing open source software. At its very core, open source software is just a copyright hack, enabled by a worldwide universal computer network. The rise of open source software is tied to the increasing ease of distributing said software, either through BBSes, Usenet, and the web. Likewise, Open Source Hardware is tied to the ease of distributing, modifying, and building hardware.

In the 1980s, there were no services that could deliver a custom circuit board to anywhere on the planet for a dollar per square inch. When open software began, CNC machines were expensive tools, now you can build a very good machine for just a week’s wages. We are currently living at the dawn of Open Source Hardware, enabled by the creation of Open Source design tools that have themselves been used to create physical tools. Inexpensive 3D printers, open source oscilloscopes, circuit board plotters, and the entire hackerspace movement are as revolutionary as the Internet. These devices and the Internet are the foundations for Open Hardware and software, respectively.  The objections to why hardware is incompatible with Open Source no longer apply and small-scale manufacturing techniques are only going to get better.

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Hackaday in Portland this Week for Open Hardware Summit

We’ve been trying fit in a tour of the Pacific Northwest for a couple of years now. This week is a perfect excuse. Hackaday is proud to sponsor the Open Hardware Summit which will be held in Portland this Friday!

Hackaday believes in the free and open sharing of information and ideas. Open Hardware has far-reaching benefits that help to educate and inspire current and future generations of hardware developers. Open Hardware also works toward making difficult and important advancements in the state of the art available to people who have the skills and interest to incorporate them in their own work.

This is why we built Hackaday.io, the world’s largest repository of Open Hardware. It’s also why we support the Open Hardware Summit, which brings together the Open Hardware community to discuss what it means to be Open Source Hardware and how to encourage the incorporation of those ideals into new products and projects.

Tindie and Supplyframe are also sponsoring the OHS. Tindie is, of course, the best place to find bleeding edge hardware sold by the designers themselves. Tindie supports Open Hardware licenses and seeks to provide the best marketplace for products and their creators. Supplyframe creates cutting edge tools for engineers to build better. This year they launched the Supplyframe Design Lab which is packed with high-end rapid prototyping tools and staffed by a resident engineer; the lab unlocks the ability to turn great ideas into prototypes that can be followed all the way through to production and product. The goal is to unite all the things necessary to make great open hardware happen.

Bring a Hack at OSH Park

There will be a ton of Hackaday, Tindie, and Supplyframe staff at Open Hardware Summit, make sure you stop by our tables, say hello, and grab some swag. But of course we want to see the hardware hacks that you’ve been working on. There are a couple of different opportunities to track down [Brian Benchoff] and [Mike Szczys] who will be on the lookout for hacks to cover in our articles.

On Thursday night we’ll be at OSH Park Headquarters for their Bring A Hack party. There will also be a hardware hangout on Friday to close the day long Summit. We want to see what you’ve been building so don’t be shy!

HardwareX Is A Scientific Journal For Open Hardware

Disruption is a basic tenet of the Open Hardware movement. How can my innovative use of technology disrupt your dinosaur of an establishment to make something better? Whether it’s an open-source project chipping away at a monopoly or a commercial start-up upsetting an industry with a precarious business model based on past realities, we’ve become used to upstarts taking the limelight.

As an observer it’s interesting to see how the establishment they are challenging reacts to the upstart. Sometimes the fragility of the challenged model is such that they collapse, other times they turn to the courts and go after the competitor or even worse, the customers, in an effort to stave off the inevitable. Just occasionally though they embrace the challengers and try to capture some of what makes them special, and it is one of these cases that is today’s subject.

A famously closed monopoly is the world of academic journals. A long-established industry with a very lucrative business model hatched in the days when its product was exclusively paper-based, this industry has come under some pressure in recent years from the unfettered publishing potential of the Internet, demands for open access to public-funded research, and the increasing influence of the open-source world in science.

Elsevier, one of the larger academic publishers, has responded to this last facet with HardwareX, a publication which describes itself as “an open access journal established to promote free and open source designing, building and customizing of scientific infrastructure“. In short: a lot of hardware built for scientific research is now being created under open-source models, and this is their response.

Some readers might respond to this with suspicion, after all the open-source world has seen enough attempts by big business to embrace its work and extend it into the proprietary, but the reality is that this is an interesting opportunity for all sides. The open access and requirement for all submissions to be covered under an open hardware licence mean that it would be impossible for this journal to retreat behind any paywalls. In addition the fact of it being published in a reputable academic journal will bring open-source scientific hardware to a new prominence as it is cited in papers appearing in other journals. Finally the existence of such a journal will encourage the adoption of open-source hardware in the world of science, as projects are released under open-source licences to fulfill the requirements for submission.

So have the publishing dinosaurs got it right, and is this journal an exciting new opportunity for all concerned? We think it has that potential, and the results won’t be confined to laboratories. Inevitably the world of hackers and makers will benefit from open-source work coming from scientists, and vice versa.

Thanks [Matheus Carvalho] for the tip.

Bookbinding workshop image: By Nasjonalbiblioteket from Norway [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

Design for Hackers

Near the end of the lifecycle of mass-market commercial product development, an engineering team may come in and make a design for manufacturability (DFM) pass. The goal is to make the device easy, cheap, and reliable to build and actually improve reliability at the same time. We hackers don’t usually take this last step, because when you’re producing just a couple of any given device, it hardly makes sense. But when you release an open-source hardware design to the world, if a lot of people re-build your widget, it might be worth it to consider DFM, or at least a hardware hacker’s version of DFM.

If you want people to make their own versions of your project, make it easy and cheap for them to do so and don’t forget to also make it hackable. This isn’t the same as industrial DFM: rather than designing for 100,000s of boards to be put together by robot assembly machines, you are designing for an audience of penny-pinching hackers, each building your project only once. But thinking about how buildable your design is will still be worthwhile.

In this article, I’m going to touch on a couple of Design for Hackers (DFH) best practices. I really want to hear your experience and desires in the comments. What would you like to see in someone else’s open designs? What drives you nuts when replicating a project? What tricks do you know to make a project easily and cheaply buildable by the average hacker?

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Micro Robots For Education

[Joshua Elsdon] and [Thomas Branch] needed a educational hardware platform that would fit into the constrained spaces and budgets of college classes. Because nothing out there that was cheap, simple and capable enough to fit their program, the two teachers for robotics at the Imperial College Robotics Society set out to build their own – and entered the Hackaday Prize with a legion of open source Micro Robots.

These small robots have a base area of 2 cmand a price tag of about £10 (about $14) each, once they are produced in quantities. They feature two onboard stepper motors, an RGB-LED, battery, a line-following sensor, collision-sensors and a bidirectional infrared transmitter for communicating with a master system, the ‘god bot’. The master system is based on a Raspberry Pi with little additional hardware. It multiplexes the IR-communication with all the little robots and simultaneously tracks their position and orientation through a camera, identifying them via their colored onboard LED. The master system also provides a programming interface for the robots, so that no firmware flashing procedure is required for students to get their code running. This is a well-designed, low-cost multi-robot system, and with onboard sensors, stepper motor odometry, and absolute positioning feedback, these little robots can be taught quite a few tricks.

Building tiny robots comes with a lot of regular-sized challenges, and we’re delighted to follow [Joshua Elsdon] and [Thomas Branch] on their journey from assembling the tiny PCBs over experimenting with 3D printing and casting techniques to produce the tiny wheels to the ROS programming. The diligent duo is present in the Hackaday prize twice: With their own Micro Robots project and with their contribution to the previously covered ODrive – an open source BLDC servo controller. We are already curious about their next feat! The below video shows a successful test of the camera feedback integration into the ROS.

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