Open-Source Hardware for the Efficient Economy

In the open-source hardware development and distribution model, designs are created collaboratively and published openly. This enables anyone to study, modify, improve, and produce the design—for one’s own use or for sale. Open-source hardware gives users full control over the products they use while unleashing innovation—compared to the limits of proprietary research and development.

This practice is transforming passive consumers of “black box” technologies into a new breed of user-producers. For consumers, open-source hardware translates into better products at a lower cost, while providing more relevant, directly applicable solutions compared to a one-size-fits-all approach. For producers, it means lower barriers to entry and a consequent democratization of production. The bottom line is a more efficient economy—one that bypasses the artificial scarcity created by exclusive rights—and instead focuses on better and faster development of appropriate technologies.

Open-source hardware is less than a decade old. It started as an informal practice in the early 2000s with fragmented cells of developers sharing instructions for producing physical objects in the spirit of open-source software. It has now become a movement with a recognized definition, specific licenses, an annual conference, and several organizations to support open practices. The expansion of open-source hardware is also visible in a proliferation of open-source plans for making just about anything, from 3-D printers, microcontrollers, and scientific equipment, to industrial machines, cars, tractors, and solar-power generators.

As the movement takes shape, the next major milestone is the development of standards for efficient development and quality documentation. The aim here is to deliver on the potential of open-source products to meet or exceed industry standards—at a much lower cost—while scaling the impact of collaborative development practices.

The Internet brought about the information revolution, but an accompanying revolution in open-source product development has yet to happen. The major blocks are the absence of uniform standards for design, documentation, and development process; accessible collaborative design platforms (CAD); and a unifying set of interface standards for module-based design—such that electronics, mechanical devices, controllers, power units, and many other types of modules could easily interface with one another.

Can unleashed collaboration catapult open-source hardware from its current multimillion dollar scale to the next trillion dollar economy?

One of the most promising scenarios for the future of open source hardware is a global supply chain made up of thousands of interlinked organizations in which collaboration and complementarity are the norm. In this scenario, producers at all levels—from hobbyists to commercial manufacturers—have access to transparent fabrication tools, and digital plans circulate freely, enabling them to build on each other quickly and efficiently.

The true game changers are the fabrication machines that transform designs into objects. While equipment such as laser cutters, CNC machine tools, and 3-D printers has been around for decades, the breakthrough comes from the drastically reduced cost and increased access to these tools. For example, online factories enable anyone to upload a design and receive the material object in the mail a few days later. A proliferation of open-source digital fabrication tools, hackerspaces, membership-based shops, fab labs, micro factories, and other collaborative production facilities are drastically increasing access and reducing the cost of production. It has become commonplace for a novice to gain ready access to state-of-art productive power.

On the design side, it’s now possible for 70 engineers to work in parallel with a collaborative CAD package to design the airplane wing for a Boeing 767 in 1 hour. This is a real-world proof of concept of taking development to warp speed—though achieved with proprietary tools and highly paid engineers. With a widely available, open-source collaborative CAD package and digital libraries of design for customization, it would be possible for even a novice to create advanced machines—and for a large group of novices to create advanced machines at warp speed. Complex devices, such as cars, can be modeled with an inviting set of Lego-like building blocks in a module-based CAD package. Thereafter, CNC equipment can be used to produce these designs from off-the-shelf parts and locally available materials. Efficient industrial production could soon be at anyone’s fingertips.

Sharing instructions for making things is not a novel idea. However, the formal establishment of an open-source approach to the development and production of critical technologies is a disruptive force. The potential lies in the emergence of many significant and scalable enterprises built on top of this model. If such entities collaborate openly, it becomes possible to unleash the efficiency of global development based on free information flows. This implies a shift from “business as usual” to an efficient economy in which environmental and social justice are part of the equation.

 

Catarina Mota is a New York City-based Portuguese maker and open-source advocate who cofounded the openMaterials (openMaterials.org) research project, which is focused on open-source and DIY experimentation with smart materials. She is both a PhD candidate at FCSHUNL and a visiting scholar at NYU, and she has taught workshops on topics such as hi-tech materials and simple circuitry. Catarina is a fellow of the National Science and Technology Foundation of Portugal, co-chair of the Open Hardware Summit, a TEDGlobal 2012 fellow, and member of NYC Resistor.

Marcin Jakubowski graduated from Princeton and earned a PhD Fusion Physics from the University of Wisconsin. In 2003 Marcin founded the Open Source Ecology (OpenSourceEcology.org) network of engineers, farmers, and supporters. The group is working on the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), which is an open-source, DIY toolset of 50 different industrial machines intended for the construction of a modern civilization (http://vimeo.com/16106427).

This essay appears in Circuit Cellar 271, February 2013.

Electrical Engineer Crossword (Issue 272)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s March electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

1.     JACOBSLADDER—Climbing arc [two words]

5.     WOZNIAK—Apple I

8.     SPARKCOIL—Uses a low-voltage DC supply to create high-voltage pulses

10.   JITTER—Creates an imperfect timing signal

11.   ERG—Energy measurement

13.   ACOUSTICOHM—Equivalent to µbar s/cm3 [two words]

15.   BUFFER—Provides electrical isolation

16.   WIFI—Provides movement to smartphones, PCs, and tablets

17.   POSIX—An IEEE operating system compatibility standard

18.   PEAKTOPEAK—Alterations between high and low values

19.   MUTEX—Capable of ensuring atomic access to any shared resource

20.   NAKAMURA—University of California, Santa Barbara professor credited with inventing the blue LED

 

Down

2.     OSCILLATOR—American physicist George W. Pierce (1872–1956); piezoelectric

3.     EIGENTONE—A pitch capable of resonance

4.     FRETSONFIRE—Open-source gameplay for music lovers [three words]

6.     NEGATIVEFEEDBACK—Type of amplifier invented in 1927 by Harold Black [two words]

7.     BAFFLE—Sound wave obstruction

9.     MORSECODE—A pre-texting means of communication [two words]

12.   COMBFILTER—Capable of causing delay [two words]

14.   CHIPSET—Intel created the first family of these

CC272: Issue of Ingenuity

The March issue of Circuit Cellar includes articles from a number of practical problem solvers, such as a homeowner who wanted to get a better grasp of his electrical usage and a professor who built a better-than-average music box.

Dean Boman, a retired spacecraft communications systems designer, decided to add oversight of his electric usage (in real time) to his home-monitoring system. After all, his system already addressed everything from security to fire detection to irrigation control. On page 34, he describes his energy monitoring system, which provides a webpage with circuit-by-circuit energy usage. This level of detail can make you a well-informed energy consumer.

Dean Bowman’s energy-monitoring system

Bruce Land, a senior lecturer in electronics and computer science at Cornell University, thought developing a microcontroller-based music device would be a useful class lesson. But more importantly, he knew his 3-year-old granddaughter would love an interactive music box. On page 28, he shares how he built a music device with an 8-bit microcontroller that enables changing the note sequence, timbre, tempo, and beat.

Computer engineer Chris Paiano has written many application notes for the Cypress programmable-system-on-chip (PSoC) chipset. He is even working on a PSoC solution for his broken dishwasher. But that’s far from his most impressive work. Read an interview with this problem-solver on page 41.

College students built a rotational inverted pendulum (RIP) to test nonlinear control theory. But you might want to make and tune one for fun. Nelson Epp did. On page 20, he describes how he built his RIP and utilized a TV remote control to meet the challenges of balance and swing. “It is a good project because the hardware used is fairly common, the firmware techniques and math behind them are relatively easy to understand, and you get a good feeling when, for the first time, the thing actually works,” he says.

Nelson Epp’s rotational inverted pendulum (RIP)

Chip biometrics are unique digital chip features—left by the manufacturing process—that distinguish one chip from another of the same type. Finding these chip “fingerprints” is important in developing trustworthy and secure electronics. On page 45, Patrick Schaumont discusses how to extract a fingerprint from a field programmable gate array (FPGA) and authenticate a chip’s identity.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio, a telecommunications engineer from Italy, designs data acquisition system software for physics experiments and industrial use. In the Tech the Future essay on page 80, he discusses the many alternatives for data acquisition software and the goal of developing credit-card-sized embedded data acquisition systems, using open-source software, to manage industrial systems.

Other article highlights include George Novacek’s look at ways to reduce product failures in the field (p. 52), Ed Nisley’s take on how to get true analog voltages from the Arduino’s PWM outputs (p. 56), and Jeff Bachiochi’s guidance on using a development kit to design a tool to help transmit Morse code (p. 68).

With this issue’s emphasis on robotics, you’ll want to check out  our From the Archives article about a SOPHOCLES design for a solar-powered robot that can detect poisonous gas (p. 62).

Issue 270: EQ Answers

The answers to the Circuit Cellar 270 Engineering Quotient are now available. The problems and answers are listed below.

Problem 1: Given a microprocessor that has hardware support for just one level of priority for interrupts, is it possible to implement multiple priorities in software? If so, what are the prerequisites that are required?

Answer 1: Yes, given a few basic capabilities, it is possible to implement multiple levels of interrupt priority in software. The basic requirements are that it must be possible to reenable interrupts from within an interrupt service routine (ISR) and that the different interrupt sources can be individually masked.

Question 2: What is the basic scheme for implementing software interrupt priorities?

Answer 2: In normal operation, all the interrupt sources are enabled, along with the processor’s global-interrupt mask.

When an interrupt occurs, the global interrupt mask is disabled and the “master” ISR is entered. This code must (quickly) determine which interrupt occurred, disable that interrupt and all lower-priority interrupts at their sources, then reenable the global-interrupt mask before jumping to the ISR for that interrupt. This can often be facilitated by precomputing a table of interrupt masks for each priority level.

Question 3: What are some of the problems associated with software interrupt priorities?

Answer 3: For one thing, the start-up latency of all the ISRs is increased by the time spent in the “master” ISR. This can be a problem in time-critical systems. This scheme enables interrupts to be nested, so the stack must be large enough to handle the worst-case nesting of ISRs, on top of the worst-case nesting of non-interrupt subroutine calls.

Finally, it is very tricky to do this in anything other than Assembly language. If you want to use a high-level language, you’ll need to be intimately familiar with the language’s run-time library and how it handles interrupts and reentrancy, in general.

Answer 4: Yes, on most such processors, you can execute a subroutine call to a “return from interrupt” instruction while still in the master ISR, which will then return to the master ISR, but with interrupts enabled.

Check to see whether the “return from interrupt” affects any other processor state (e.g., popping a status word from the stack) and prepare the stack accordingly.

Also, beware that another interrupt could occur immediately thereafter, and make sure the master ISR is reentrant beyond that point.

 

Contributed by David Tweed

CC271: Got Range?

As with wireless connectivity, when it comes to your engineering skills, range matters. The more you know about a variety of applicable topics, the more you’ll profit in your professional and personal engineering-related endeavors. Thus, it makes sense to educate yourself on a continual basis on the widest range of topics you can. It can be a daunting task. But no worries. We’re here to help. In this issue, we feature articles on topics as seemingly diverse as wireless technology to embedded programming to open-source development. Let’s take a closer look.

Consider starting with Catarina Mota and Marcin Jakubowski’s Tech the Future essay, “Open-Source Hardware for the Efficient Economy” (p. 80). They are thoughtful visionaries at the forefront of a global open-source hardware project. You’ll find their work exciting and inspirational.

Stuart Ball’s Dip Meter

On page 20, Stuart Ball describes the process of designing a digital dip meter. It’s a go-to tool for checking a device’s resonant frequency, or you can use it as a signal source to tune receivers. Ball used a microcontroller to digitize the dip meter’s display.

Interested in 3-D technology? William Meyers and Guo Jie Chin’s 3-D Paint project (p. 26) is a complete hardware and software package that uses free space as a canvas and enables you to draw in 3-D by measuring ultrasonic delays. They used a PC and MATLAB to capture movements and return them in real time.

This month we’re running the third article in Richard Lord’s series, “Digital Camera Controller” (p. 32). He covers the process of building a generic front-panel controller for the Photo-Pal flash-trigger camera controller project.

Richard Lord’s front panel CPU

Turn to page 37 for the fifth article in Bob Japenga’s series on concurrency in embedded systems. He covers the portable operating system interface (POSIX), mutex, semaphores, and more.

Check out the interview on page 41 for insight into the interests and work of electrical engineer and graduate student Colin O’Flynn. He describes some of his previous work, as well as his Binary Explorer Board, which he designed in 2012.

Colin O’Flynn’s Binary Explorer Board

In Circuit Cellar 270, George Novacek tackled the topic of failure mode and criticality analysis (FMECA). This month he focuses on fault-tree analysis (p. 46).

Arduino is clearly one of the hottest design platforms around. But how can you use it in a professional-level design? Check out Ed Nisley’s “Arduino Survival Guide” (p. 49).

Standing waves are notoriously difficult to understand. Fortunately, Robert Lacoste prepared an article on the topic that covers an experimental platform and measurements (p. 54).

This month’s article from the archives relates directly to the issue’s wireless technology theme. On page 60 is Roy Franz’s 2003 article about his WiFi SniFi design, which can locate wireless networks and then display “captured” packet information.

If you like this issue’s cover, you’ll have to check out Jeff Bachiochi’s article on QR coding (p. 68). He provides an excellent analysis of the technology from a pro engineer’s point of view.

Circuit Cellar 271 is now available.

CC25 Is Now Available

Ready to take a look at the past, present, and future of embedded technology, microcomputer programming, and electrical engineering? CC25 is now available.

Check out the issue preview.

We achieved three main goals by putting together this issue. One, we properly documented the history of Circuit Cellar from its launch in 1988 as a bi-monthly magazine
about microcomputer applications to the present day. Two, we gathered immediately applicable tips and tricks from professional engineers about designing, programming, and completing electronics projects. Three, we recorded the thoughts of innovative engineers, academics, and industry leaders on the future of embedded technologies ranging from
rapid prototyping platforms to 8-bit chips to FPGAs.

The issue’s content is gathered in three main sections. Each section comprises essays, project information, and interviews. In the Past section, we feature essays on the early days of Circuit Cellar, the thoughts of long-time readers about their first MCU-based projects, and more. For instance, Circuit Cellar‘s founder Steve Ciarcia writes about his early projects and the magazine’s launch in 1988. Long-time editor/contributor Dave Tweed documents some of his favorite projects from the past 25 years.

The Present section features advice from working hardware and software engineers. Examples include a review of embedded security risks and design tips for ensuring system reliability. We also include short interviews with professionals about their preferred microcontrollers, current projects, and engineering-related interests.

The Future section features essays by innovators such as Adafruit Industries founder Limor Fried, ARM engineer Simon Ford, and University of Utah professor John Regehr on topics such as the future of DIY engineering, rapid prototyping, and small-RAM devices. The section also features two different sets of interviews. In one, corporate leaders such as Microchip Technology CEO Steve Sanghi and IAR Systems CEO Stefan Skarin speculate on the future of embedded technology. In the other, engineers such as Stephen Edwards (Columbia University) offer their thoughts about the technologies that will shape our future.

As you read the issue, ask yourself the same questions we asked our contributors: What’s your take on the history of embedded technology? What can you design and program today? What do you think about the future of embedded technology? Let us know.

Electrical Engineer Crossword (Issue 271)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s February electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

3.            CONFORMALCOATING—Used on PCBs intended for extreme environments [two words]

4.            LOOP—An often repetitious code sequence

7.            VUMETER—Measures program volume [two words]

8.            GALVANOMETER—An electric current identifier

10.         FACTORIAL—“n!”

11.         DIPMETER—Evaluates radio frequency circuits [two words]

13.         REEDSOLOMON—Non-binary code [two words]

16.         SHOCKLEY—One of a group of three co-inventors who, in 1956, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for creating the transistor

18.         SUBSTRATE—An insulating board’s surface

19.         TELEPHONY—Concept proposed by Belgian engineer Charles Bourseul in 1856

20.         ACTUATOR—Electric motors and loudspeakers, for example

 

Down

1.            TORODIAL—A type of inductor or transformer whose windings form a closed circular tube

2.            POTENTIOMETER—May be used to control volume on audio equipment

5.            PIEZOELECTRICITY—Often used to produce and detect high voltages, sound, and electronic frequency generation

6.            OCCAMPROCESS—An electronic circuit board manufacturing method [two words]

9.            FLYWHEEL—An energy-storing device

12.         MONOBLOCK—A single-channel power amp with high current power

14.         RELIABILITY—Quality over time

15.         MICROMETER—Used to measure small objects’ thickness

17.         EISLER—Austrian engineer (1907–992) credited with inventing the printed circuit

Open-Source Hardware for the Efficient Economy

In the open-source hardware development and distribution model, designs are created collaboratively and published openly. This enables anyone to study, modify, improve, and produce the design—for one’s own use or for sale. Open-source hardware gives users full control over the products they use while unleashing innovation—compared to the limits of proprietary research and development.

This practice is transforming passive consumers of “black box” technologies into a new breed of user-producers. For consumers, open-source hardware translates into better products at a lower cost, while providing more relevant, directly applicable solutions compared to a one-size-fits-all approach. For producers, it means lower barriers to entry and a consequent democratization of production. The bottom line is a more efficient economy—one that bypasses the artificial scarcity created by exclusive rights—and instead focuses on better and faster development of appropriate technologies.

Open-source hardware is less than a decade old. It started as an informal practice in the early 2000s with fragmented cells of developers sharing instructions for producing physical objects in the spirit of open-source software. It has now become a movement with a recognized definition, specific licenses, an annual conference, and several organizations to support open practices. The expansion of open-source hardware is also visible in a proliferation of open-source plans for making just about anything, from 3-D printers, microcontrollers, and scientific equipment, to industrial machines, cars, tractors, and solar-power generators.

As the movement takes shape, the next major milestone is the development of standards for efficient development and quality documentation. The aim here is to deliver on the potential of open-source products to meet or exceed industry standards—at a much lower cost—while scaling the impact of collaborative development practices.

The Internet brought about the information revolution, but an accompanying revolution in open-source product development has yet to happen. The major blocks are the absence of uniform standards for design, documentation, and development process; accessible collaborative design platforms (CAD); and a unifying set of interface standards for module-based design—such that electronics, mechanical devices, controllers, power units, and many other types of modules could easily interface with one another.

Can unleashed collaboration catapult open-source hardware from its current multimillion dollar scale to the next trillion dollar economy?

One of the most promising scenarios for the future of open source hardware is a glocal supply chain made up of thousands of interlinked organizations in which collaboration and complementarity are the norm. In this scenario, producers at all levels—from hobbyists to commercial manufacturers—have access to transparent fabrication tools, and digital plans circulate freely, enabling them to build on each other quickly and efficiently.

The true game changers are the fabrication machines that transform designs into objects. While equipment such as laser cutters, CNC machine tools, and 3-D printers has been around for decades, the breakthrough comes from the drastically reduced cost and increased access to these tools. For example, online factories enable anyone to upload a design and receive the material object in the mail a few days later. A proliferation of open-source digital fabrication tools, hackerspaces, membership-based shops, fab labs, micro factories, and other collaborative production facilities are drastically increasing access and reducing the cost of production. It has become commonplace for a novice to gain ready access to state-of-art productive power.

On the design side, it’s now possible for 70 engineers to work in parallel with a collaborative CAD package to design the airplane wing for a Boeing 767 in 1 hour. This is a real-world proof of concept of taking development to warp speed—though achieved with proprietary tools and highly paid engineers. With a widely available, open-source collaborative CAD package and digital libraries of design for customization, it would be possible for even a novice to create advanced machines—and for a large group of novices to create advanced machines at warp speed. Complex devices, such as cars, can be modeled with an inviting set of Lego-like building blocks in a module-based CAD package. Thereafter, CNC equipment can be used to produce these designs from off-the-shelf parts and locally available materials. Efficient industrial production could soon be at anyone’s fingertips.

Sharing instructions for making things is not a novel idea. However, the formal establishment of an open-source approach to the development and production of critical technologies is a disruptive force. The potential lies in the emergence of many significant and scalable enterprises built on top of this model. If such entities collaborate openly, it becomes possible to unleash the efficiency of global development based on free information flows. This implies a shift from “business as usual” to an efficient economy in which environmental and social justice are part of the equation.

 

Catarina Mota is a New York City-based Portuguese maker and open-source advocate who cofounded the openMaterials (openMaterials.org) research project, which is focused on open-source and DIY experimentation with smart materials. She is both a PhD candidate at FCSHUNL and a visiting scholar at NYU, and she has taught workshops on topics such as hi-tech materials and simple circuitry. Catarina is a fellow of the National Science and Technology Foundation of Portugal, co-chair of the Open Hardware Summit, a TEDGlobal 2012 fellow, and member of NYC Resistor.

Marcin Jakubowski graduated from Princeton and earned a PhD Fusion Physics from the University of Wisconsin. In 2003 Marcin founded the Open Source Ecology (OpenSourceEcology.org) network of engineers, farmers, and supporters. The group is working on the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), which is an open-source, DIY toolset of 50 different industrial machines intended for the construction of a modern civilization (http://vimeo.com/16106427).

This essay appears in Circuit Cellar 271, February 2013.

Electrical Engineer Crossword (Issue 270)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s January electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

1.     ICONOSCOPE—The first widely used television camera tube

5.     INTERRUPTROUTINE—Responds to disturbances [two words]

8.     RADIXPOINT—Separates a number’s integer part from its fraction part [two words]

11.   IMPEDANCE—Bridge circuit used to measure resistance

14.   SALLENKEY—A simple filter topology used to implement second-order active filters [two words]

16.   TYNDALLEFFECT—Light scattering [two words]

17.   LADDER—A kind of passive filter

18.   INPUTOUTPUT—Microcontrollers contain these type of peripherals [two words]

19.   IDEMPOTENTLAW—The result never changes [two words]

 

Down

2.     NANDCIRCUIT—Combines two types of functions in a binary circuit with two or more inputs and one output [two words]

3.     BARDEEN—Won the Nobel Prize in Physics twice

4.     DIODE—Developed in 1904 by English engineer John Ambrose Fleming

6.     ECHOBOX—A device that receives part of a transmitted pulse and transmits it back to the receiver [two words]

7.     KARNAUGHMAP—Used to simplify algebra expressions [two words]

9.     FARADY—English scientist (1791–1867) who published the law of induction

10.   GANGED—Tuning that uses a single control to tune two or more circuits

12.   DCGENERATOR—French instrument maker Hippolyte Pixii developed a prototype for this in 1832 [two words]

13.   ILLUMINATE—What an LED does

14.   SAWTOOTH—A waveform with a slow linear rise time and a fast fall time

15.   RCSERVO—An absolute-positioning actuator that is typically limited to a 180° rotation  [two words]

Electrical Engineering Tools & Preparation (CC 25th Anniversary Issue Preview)

Electrical engineering is frequently about solving problems. Success requires a smart plan of action and the proper tools. But as all designers know, getting started can be difficult. We’re here to help.

You don’t have to procrastinate or spend a fortune on tools to start building your own electronic circuits. As engineer/columnist Jeff Bachiochi has proved countless times during the past 25 years,  there are hardware and software tools that fit any budget. In Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, he offers some handy tips on building a tool set for successful electrical engineering. Bachiochi writes:

In this essay, I’ll cover the “build” portion of the design process. For instance, I’ll detail various tips for prototyping, circuit wiring, enclosure preparation, and more. I’ll also describe several of the most useful parts and tools (e.g., protoboards, scopes, and design software) for working on successful electronic design projects. When you’re finished with this essay, you’ll be well on your way to completing a successful electronic design project.

The Prototyping Process

Prototyping is an essential part of engineering. Whether you’re working on a complicated embedded system or a simple blinking LED project, building a prototype can save you a lot of time, money, and hassle in the long run. You can choose one of three basic styles of prototyping: solderless breadboard, perfboard, and manufactured PCB. Your project goals, your schedule, and your circuit’s complexity are variables that will influence your choice. (I am not including styles like flying leads and wire-wrapping.)

Prototyping Tools

The building phase of a design might include wiring up your circuit design and altering an enclosure to provide access to any I/O on the PCB. Let’s begin with some tools that you will need for circuit prototyping.

The nearby photo shows a variety of small tools that I use when wiring a perfboard or assembling a manufactured PCB. The needle-nose pliers/cutter is the most useful.

These are my smallest hand tools. With them I can poke, pinch, bend, cut, smooth, clean, and trim parts, boards, and enclosures. I can use the set of special driver tips to open almost any product that uses security screws.

Don’t skimp on this; a good pair will last many years. …

Once everything seems to be in order, you can fill up the sockets. You might need to provide some stimulus if you are building something like a filter. A small waveform generator is great for this. There are even a few hand probes that will provide outputs that can stimulate your circuitry. An oscilloscope might be the first “big ticket” item in which you invest. There are some inexpensive digital scope front ends that use an app running on a PC for display and control, but I suggest a basic analog scope (20 MHz) if you can swing it (starting at less than $500).

If the circuit doesn’t perform the expected task, you should give the wiring job a quick once over. Look to see if something is missing, such as an unconnected or misconnected wire. If you don’t find something obvious, perform a complete continuity check of all the components and their connections using an ohmmeter.

I use a few different meters. One has a transistor checker. Another has a high-current probe. For years I used a small battery-powered hand drill before purchasing the Dremel and drill press. The tweezers are actually an SMT parts measurer. Many are unmarked and impossible to identify without using this device (and the magnifier).

It usually will be a stupid mistake. To do a complete troubleshooting job, you’ll need to know how the circuit is supposed to work. Without that knowledge, you can’t be expected to know where to look and what to look for.

Make a Label

You’ll likely want to label your design… Once printed, you can protect a label by carefully covering it with a single strip of packing tape.

The label for this project came straight off a printer. Using circuit-mount parts made assembling the design a breeze.

A more expensive alternative is to use a laminating machine that puts your label between two thin plastic sheets. There are a number of ways to attach your label to an enclosure. Double-sided tape and spray adhesive (available at craft stores) are viable options.”

Ready to start innovating? There’s no time like now to begin your adventure.

Check out the upcoming anniversary issue for Bachiochi’s complete essay.

The Future of 8-Bit Chips (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Ever since the time when a Sony Walkman retailed for around $200, engineers of all backgrounds and skill levels have been prognosticating the imminent death of 8-bit chips. No matter your age, you’ve likely heard the “8-bit is dead” argument more than once. And you’ll likely hear it a few more times over the next several years.

Long-time Circuit Cellar contributor Tom Cantrell has been following the 8-bit saga for the last 25 years. In Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, he offers his thoughts on 8-bit chips and their future. Here’s a sneak peek. Cantrell writes:

“8-bit is dead.”  Or so I was told by a colleague. In 1979. Ever since then, reports of the demise of 8-bit chips have been greatly, and repeatedly, exaggerated. And ever since then, I’ve been pointing out the folly of premature eulogizing.

I’ll concede the prediction is truer today than in 1979—mainly, because it wasn’t true at all then. Now, some 30-plus years later, let’s reconsider the prospects for our “wee” friends…

Let’s start the analysis by putting on our Biz101 hats. If you Google “Product Life Cycle” and click on “Images,” you’ll see a variety of somewhat similar graphs showing how products pass through stages of growth, maturity, and decline. Though all the graphs tell a rise-and-fall story, it’s interesting to note the variations. Some show a symmetrical life cycle that looks rather like a normal distribution. But the majority of the graphs show a “long-tail” variation in which the maturity phase lasts somewhat longer and the decline is relatively gradual.

Another noteworthy difference is how some graphs define life and death in terms of “sales” and others “profits.” It stands to reason that no business will continue to sell at a loss indefinitely, but the market knows how to fix that. Even if some suppliers wave the white flag, those that remain can raise prices and maintain profitability as long as there is still demand.

One of the more interesting life cycle variations shows that innovation, like a fountain of youth, can stave off death indefinitely. An example that comes to mind is the recent introduction of ferroelectric RAM (FRAM) MCUs. FRAM has real potential to reduce power consumption and also streamlines the supply chain because a single block of FRAM can be arbitrarily partitioned to emulate any mix of read-mostly or random access memory (see Photo 1). They may be “mature” products, but today the Texas Instruments MSP430 and Ramtron 8051 are leading the way with FRAM.

Photo 1: Ongoing innovation, such as the FRAM-based “Wolverine” MCU from Texas Instruments, continues to expand the market for mini-me MCUs. (Source: Cantrell CC25)

And “innovation” isn’t limited to just the chips themselves. For instance, consider the growing popularity of the Arduino SBC. There’s certainly nothing new about the middle-of-the-road, 8-bit Atmel AVR chip it uses. Rather, the innovations are with the “tools” (simplified IDE), “open-source community,” and “sales channel” (e.g., RadioShack). You can teach an old chip new tricks!

Check out the upcoming anniversary issue for the rest of Cantrell’s essay. Be sure to let us know what you think about the future of the 8-bit chip.

The Future of FPGAs (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) have been around for more than two decades. What does the future hold for this technology? According to Halifax, Canada-based electrical engineering consultant Colin O’Flynn, current FPGA-related research and recent innovations seem to presage a coming revolution in digital system design, and this could lead to striking fast advances in several fields of engineering.

In the upcoming Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue—which is slated for publication in early 2013—O’Flynn shares his thoughts on the future of FPGA technology. He writes:

Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) provide a powerful means to design digital systems (see Photo 1). Rather than writing a software program, you can design a number of hardware blocks to perform your tasks at blazing speeds…

Photo 1: Source: C. O’Flynn, CC 25th Anniversary issue

Microcontrollers have long played the peripheral game: the integration of easy-to-use dedicated peripherals onto the same physical chip as your digital core. FPGAs, it would seem, have no use for dedicated logic, since you can just design everything exactly as you desire. But dedicated logic has its advantages.

Beyond technical advantages, such as lower power consumption or smaller area with dedicated cores compared to programmable cores, dedicated cores can also reduce development effort. For example, current technology sees FPGAs with integrated high-end ARM cores, capable of running Linux on the integrated hard-core. Anyone familiar with setting up Linux on an ARM-based microprocessor can use this, without needing to learn about how one develops cores and peripherals on the FPGA itself.
Beyond integrating digital cores to simplify development, you can expect to see the integration of analog peripherals. Looking at the microcontroller market, you can find a variety of tightly integrated SoC devices with analog and digital on a single device. For instance, a variety of radio devices contain a complete RF front-end combined with a digital microcontroller. While current FPGA devices offer very limited analog peripherals (most have none), having a FPGA with an integrated high-speed ADC or DAC would be the making of a highly flexible radio-on-a-chip platform. The high development cost and lack of a current market has meant this remains only an interesting idea. To see where this market comes from, let’s look at some applications for such an FPGA.

Software-Defined Radio
Software-defined radio (SDR) takes a curious approach to receiving radio waves: digitize it all, and let software sort it out. The radio front-end is simple. Typically, the center frequency of interest is just downshifted to the baseband, everything else is filtered out, and a high-speed ADC digitizes it. All the demodulation and decoding then can be down in software. Naturally, this can require some fast sampling speeds. Anything from 20 to 500 MSps is fairly typical for these systems. Dealing with this much data is suited to FPGAs, since one can generate blocks to perform all the different functions that operate simultaneously…

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.

Do Small-RAM Devices Have a Future? (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

What does the future hold for small-RAM microcontrollers? Will there be any reason to put up with the constraints of parts that have little RAM, no floating point, and 8-bit registers? The answer matters to engineers who have spent years programming small-RAM MCUs. It also matters to designers who are hoping to keep their skills relevant as their careers progress in the 21st century.

In the upcoming Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue—which is slated for publication in early 2013—University of Utah professor John Regehr shares his thoughts on the future of small-RAM devices. He writes:

For the last several decades, the role of small-RAM microcontrollers has been clear: they are used to perform fixed (though sometimes very sophisticated) functionality in environments where cost, power consumption, and size need to be minimized. They exploit the low marginal cost of additional transistors to integrate volatile RAM, nonvolatile RAM, and numerous peripherals into the same package as the processor core, providing a huge amount of functionality in a small, cheap package. Something that is less clear is the future of small-RAM microcontrollers. The same fabrication economics that make it possible to put numerous peripherals on a single die also permit RAM to be added at little cost. This was brought home to me recently when I started using Raspberry Pi boards in my embedded software class at the University of Utah. These cost $25 to $35 and run a full-sized Linux distribution including GCC, X Windows, Python, and everything else—all on a system-on-chip with 256 MB of RAM that probably costs a few dollars in quantity.

We might ask: Given that it is already the case that a Raspberry Pi costs about the same as an Arduino board, in the future will there be any reason to put up with the constraints of an architecture like Atmel’s AVR, where we have little RAM, no floating point, and 8-bit registers? The answer matters to those of us who enjoy programming small-RAM MCUs and who have spent years fine-tuning our skills to do so. It also matters to those of us who hope to keep our skills relevant through the middle of the 21st century. Can we keep writing C code, or do we need to start learning Java, Python, and Haskell? Can we keep writing stand-alone “while (true)” loops, or will every little MCU support a pile of virtual machines, each with its own OS?

Long & Short Term

In the short term, it is clear that inertia will keep the small-RAM parts around, though increasingly they will be of the more compiler-friendly varieties, such as AVR and MSP430, as opposed to earlier instruction sets like Z80, HC11, and their descendants. But will small-RAM microcontrollers exist in the longer term (e.g., 25 or 50 years)? I’ll attempt to tackle this question by separately discussing the two things that make small-RAM parts attractive today: their low cost and their simplicity.

If we assume a cost model where packaging and soldering costs are fixed but the marginal cost of a transistor (not only in terms of fabrication, but also in terms of power consumption) continues to drop, then small-RAM parts will eventually disappear. In this case, several decades from now even the lowliest eight-pin package, costing a few pennies, will contain a massive amount of RAM and will be capable of running a code base containing billions of lines…

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.

Electrical Engineer Crossword (Issue 269)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s December electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

1.     MOSFET—According to Ed Nisley in his Circuit Cellar 265  2012 article, this type of tester characterizes a transistor’s behavior by computing the drain resistance at each combination of measured voltage and current

5.     LORENTZ—Type of force on a charged particle caused by electromagnetic fields

9.     TWEED—Tests your engineering know-how in every issue of Circuit Cellar

10.   HOMECONTROL—In last month’s “Task Manager,” Circuit Cellar Editor-in-Chief C. J. Abate mentioned that this was one of the hottest topics in the magazine’s earliest issues [two words]

12.   TASK—In his article in this issue, Bob Japenga defines this as an instance of a software program that is utilizing CPU resources to accomplish some purpose

14.   WIRTH—Swiss computer scientist who designed the Pascal programming language

16.   ILLUMINATION—An LED’s purpose

18.   CALLBACK—Enables a lower-level software layer to request a higher-level-defined subroutine

19.   ELECTRICALRESISTANCE—German physicist Georg Ohm 1789 – 6 July 1854 first introduced this concept [two words]

Down

2.     SHANNON—Cryptographer known as the “father of information theory”

3.     AUTONOMOUSROBOT—Does not rely on human interaction [two words]

4.     BODEPLOT—Represents a system’s gain and phase as a frequency function  [two words]

6.     EAGLE—Commonly used for PCB design

7.     TACHOMETER—A device that can help you determine revolutions per minute

8.     PROGRAMMABLELOGIC—These types of projects utilize FPGAs, PLDs, and other chips [two words]

11.   THERMOELECTRIC—Type of cooling that relies on the Peltier effect to alter heat between two types of materials

13.   MAGNETOMETER—Used to measure magnetic fields’ strength and intensity

15.   GREENENERGY—Focus of Renesas’s 2012 design challenge [two words]

17.   NONCE—Available for a limited time

 

Electronic Engineering Crossword (Issue 268)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s November electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

2.     FLOWCODE—Columnist Jeff Bachiochi taught readers how to use this graphical programming language in his recent article about flowcharting (Circuit Cellar 266, 2012)

7.     LAPLACE—This type of transform is similar to Fourier, but expresses functions into moments as opposed of vibration

11.   RACEWAY—Channel to hold wires, cables, etc.

12.   SENSORSCircuit Cellar’s 250th issue (2011) focused on Measurement and this other topic

13.   LANDS—A metallic contact area

14.   BITTI—Interviewee (Circuit Cellar 253, 2011) who designed the “Witness Camera,” a self-recording surveillance camera

17.   DARLINGTON—This type of pair can be produced using individual transistors or purchased as a single device, as in a 2N6301

18.   WAFER—A slice of semiconductor material upon which monolithic ICs are produced

19.   DIELECTRICCORE—The insulating material that makes up the center of the cable through which the conductors are run [two words]

20.   THERMOPLASTIC—A synthetic, flexible mixture of rosins used as an insulting material

Down

1.     ROUNDKEYS—In his article “Hardware-Accelerated Encryption” (Circuit Cellar 266, 2012) Patrick Schaumont said AES encryption’s real secrecy comes from the periodic additions of these

3.     OILCAN—A type of planar tube, similar to the lighthouse tube, which has cooling fins

4.     VECTORGRAPHICS—In the 1970s, Circuit Cellar founder Steve Ciarcia wrote his first article for BYTE about this topic

5.     VOLTAGECONTROLLED—An oscillator controlled by voltage input; there are usually two types: harmonic and relaxation [two words]

6.     TEMPEST—Describes compromising emanations

8.     ACQUISITIONTIME—In a communications system, the time interval required to attain synchronism [two words]

9.     INTEL—Company credited with making the first single-chip microprocessor

10.   HANDSHAKING—How one device communicates with one or more other devices, at a predetermined speed

15.   VARACTOR—Used as a capacitor to control voltage

16.   SALLENKEY—Active filer, two-pole [two words]