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!

Ask Hackaday: How Do You Draw Schematics?

The lingua franca of electronic design is the schematic. I can pick up a datasheet written in Chinese (a language I do not read or speak) and usually get a half-decent idea of what the part is all about from the drawings. Unfortunately, even as my design experience has grown over the years, I haven’t quite learned to think in schematics — I need to see it on paper (or on a screen) to analyze a circuit. Whether it’s literally on the back of an envelope or sketched in the condensation on the shower stall, actually drawing a design or idea makes a huge difference in being able to understand it. And, if you’ve ever tried to explain a circuit without a schematic — in an on-line forum or over the phone, for instance — you know how difficult it is.

So, given the importance of the schematic for design and communication, you’d think choosing a tool to draw them would be an easy task. Not so. There are dozens of choices, from dedicated schematic drawing programs to using the schematic-capture facilities of simulation or PCB design tools, or even old-fashioned pencil-and-paper and its modern equivalents. Each one has its pros and cons, and may be better suited to one specific application, but you have to choose something.

So, readers of Hackaday, what do you use to convey your electronic design ideas to the world?

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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”

Making an Arduino Shield PCB with Fritzing

[Allan Schwartz] decided to document his experience using Fritzing to design, fabricate, and test a custom Arduino shield PCB, and his step-by-step documentation makes the workflow very clear. Anyone who is curious or has been looking for an opportunity to get started will find [Allan]’s process useful to follow. The PCB in question has two shift registers, eight LEDs, eight buttons, and fits onto an Arduino; it’s just complex enough to demonstrate useful design features and methods while remaining accessible.

[Allan] starts with a basic breadboard design, draws a schematic, prototypes the circuit, then designs the PCB and orders it online, followed by assembly and testing. [Allan] had previously taught himself to use Eagle and etched his own PCBs via the toner transfer method, but decided to use Fritzing instead this time around and found it helpful and easy to use.

About a year ago we saw Fritzing put through its paces for PCB design, and at the time found that it didn’t impress much from an engineering perspective. Regardless, as a hobbyist [Allan] found real value in using Fritzing for his project from beginning to end; he documented both the process and his observations in order to help others, and that’s wonderful.

A Tool For KiCad Board Renderings

If you’re producing documentation for a PCB project, you might as well make the board renders look good. But then, that’s a lot of work and you’re not an artist. Enter [Jan]’s new tool that takes KiCad board files, replaces each footprint with (custom) graphics, and provides a nice SVG representation, ready for labelling. If you like the output of a Fritzing layout, but have higher expectations of the PCB tool, this is just the ticket.

We all love [pighixx]’s pinout diagrams. Here’s his take on the Arduino Uno, for instance. It turns out that he does these largely by hand. That’s art for ya.

Sparkfun has taken a stab at replicating the graphical style for the pin labels, but then they toss in a photo of the real item. [Jan]’s graphic PCB generator fills in the last step toward almost putting [pighixx] out of a job. Get the code for yourself on GitHub.

Design and Hacking Drilldown: SuperCon Badge

One can imagine a political or business conference without an interactive badge — but not a hacker conference. Does this make the case for hackers being a special breed of people, always having something creative to show for their work? Yes, I think it does.

Following the Hackaday Belgrade conference in April of this year, we met at the Supplyframe offices to discuss the badge for the Hackaday SuperConference that will happen in Pasadena on 5+6th of November. The Belgrade conference badge (which was fully documented if you’re curious) was surprisingly popular, and I was asked to design the new one as well.

I was prepared to come up with something completely new, but [Mike Szczys] suggested keeping with the same basic concept for the project: “No reason to change anything, we have a badge that works”. To which I responded: “Well, the next one will also work”. But then I realized that “works” does not stand for “being functional”. The key is that it was embraced by visitors who played with it, coded on it, and solved a crypto challenge with it.

The World Doesn’t Have Enough LEDs

led-modules-versus-smdFast forward six months — here are the modifications made to the basic concept. First, the existing LED matrix, which was composed of two compact 8×8 blocks, was replaced by 128 discrete SMD LEDs. It was a much needed change to help scale down the dimensions and clunkiness, but also to avoid another painful experience of trying to purchase and have the matrix displays shipped, which seriously threatened the production of the previous badge.

It’s a long story which I discussed in my Belgrade talk — it turned out we did not manage to get enough common anode (CA) displays from all distributors in the whole world. We had a plan B, which also fizzled, leaving us with the plan C which actually included two “C”s: Common Cathode. We cleaned up all the supplies at five distributors, and managed to get 122 CA red, 340 CC red and 78 CA green displays (enough for only 270 badges) — the entire world supply. After that, you couldn’t get any 38 mm Kingbright’s display for months! The only problem was that there were two different versions of PCBs, one for CA and the other for CC displays, but luckily only one version of software, as it could autodetect the display type.

accelerometer-on-the-boardMotion and Expansion

So, what else was new in the concept? In the Belgrade version, the badge supported an accelerometer module and included an unpopulated footprint in case you decided to install it, but now the badge has the MEMS chip LIS3 as an integral part. There are nine pads (with five I/O ports, driven directly from the MCU) to which you can add a 9-pin expansion connector. There will be a number of these connectors at the Design Lab, so that anyone can expand their badge for their convenience, on the spot.

The Visual Design

The biggest change was in the visual design. What we came up with ended up being a fair bit smaller, lighter, with a more convenient shape, and less than half the thickness of the previous one. After we had scrapped quite a few ideas during the development process (including stylized skull, frog, etc), we were left with a couple of options which you can see on the image below. The wireframe drawing on the left hand side is the Belgrade badge, shown here for a size comparison. At this point the locale and date of the conference weren’t yet definitive, which is why you see San Francisco written on the images.

design-options-2016-supercon-badge

Design number 4 prevailed, so the PCB layout could begin. I don’t like autorouted PCBs, so I was in for quite a rough time trying to solve the routing manually having only 2 layers on the board at my disposal.

Routing a Compact LED Matrix

The LED matrix is so dense that there was virtually no room on the LED layer, so most of the tracks on the component layer had to be routed as if it was a single layer PCB. To make matters worse, the LED layer is routed as a matrix, with a bunch of horizontal and vertical tracks, otherwise a good reason to use a 4-layer PCB. To stay inside the budget, everything had to be placed on 2 layers, and that’s why the final result seems so confusing at the populated area between batteries:

Continue reading “Design and Hacking Drilldown: SuperCon Badge”