Graphene Revolution

The Wonderful Material That Will Change
the World of Electronics

The amazing properties of graphene have researchers, students, and inventors dreaming about exciting new applications, from unbreakable touchscreens to fast-charging batteries.

By Wisse Hettinga

Prosthetic hand with graphene electrodes

Prosthetic hand with graphene electrodes

Graphene gained popularity because of the way it is produced—the “Scotch tape method.” In fact, two scientists, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, received a Nobel Prize in 2004 for their work with the material. Their approach is straightforward. Using Scotch tape, they repeatedly removed small layers of graphite (indeed, the black stuff found in pencils) until there was only one 2-D layer of atoms left—graphene. Up to that point, many scientists understood the promise of this wonderful material, but no one had been able to get obtain a single layer of atoms. After the breakthrough, many universities started looking for graphene-related applications.

Innovative graphene-related research is underway all over the world. Today, many European institutes and universities work together under the Graphene Flagship initiative (http://graphene-flagship.eu), which was launched by the European Union in 2009. The initiative’s aim is to exchange knowledge and collaborate on research projects.

Graphene was a hot topic at the 2017 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain. This article covers a select number of applications talked about at the show. But for the complete coverage, check out the video here:

WEARABLE SENSORS FOR PROSTHETICS

The Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genova, Italy, recently developed a sensor from a cellulose and graphene composite. The sensor can be made in the form of a bracelet that fits around the arm in order to pick up the small signals associated with muscle movement. The signals are processed and used to drive a robotic prosthetic hand. Once the comfortable bracelet is placed on the wrist, it transduces the movement of the hand into electrical signals that are used to move the artificial hand in a spectacular way. More information: www.iit.it

GRAPHENE & CONVENTIONAL CMOS TECHNOLOGIES

The Scotch tape method used by the Nobel Prize winners inspired a lot of companies around the world to start producing graphene. Today, a wide variety of methods can be used depending on the actual application of the material. Graphenea (San Sebastian, Spain) is using different processes for the production of graphene products. One of them is Chemical Vapor Deposition. With this method, it is possible to create graphene on thin foil, silicon based or in form of oxide. They source many universities and research institutes that do R&D for new components such as supercapacitors, solar, batteries, and many more applications. The big challenge is to develop an industrial process that will combine graphene material with the conventional CMOS technology. In this way, the characteristics of graphene can enhance today’s components to make them useful for new applications. A good example is optical datatransfer. More information: www.graphenea.com

Transfer graphene on top of a silicon device to add more functionality

Transfer graphene on top of a silicon device to add more functionality

T5G DATA COMMUNICATION

High-speed data communication comes in all sizes and infrastructures. But on the small scale, there are many challenges. Graphene enables new optical communication on the chip level. A consortium of CNIT, Ericsson, Nokia, and IMEC have developed graphene photonics integration for high-speed transmission systems. At MWC, they showcased a packaged graphene-based modulator operating over several optical telecommunications bands. I saw the first package transmitters with optical modulators based on graphene. The modulator is only one-tenth of a millimeter. The transfer capacity is 10 Gbps, but the aim is to bring that to 100 Gbps in a year’s time. The applications will be able to play a key role in the development of 5G technology. More information: www.cnit.it/en/.

Optical modulator based on graphene technology

Optical modulator based on graphene technology

THE ART OF HEATING

FGV Cambridge Nanosystems recently developed a novel “spray-on” graphene heating system that provides uniform, large-area heating. The material can be applied to paintings or walls and turned into a ‘heating’ area that can be wirelessly controlled via a mobile app. The same methodology can also double as a temperature sensor, where you can control light intensity by sensing body temperature. More information: www.cambridgenanosystems.com

Graphene-based heater

Graphene-based heater

FOAM SENSOR FOR SHOES

Atheletes can benefit from light, strong, sensor-based shoes that that can monitor their status. To make this happen, the University of Cambridge developed a 3-D printed shoe with embedded graphene foam sensors that can monitor the pressure applied. They combine complicated structural design with accurate sensing function. The graphene foam sensor can be used for measuring the number of steps and the weight of the person. More information: www.cam.ac.uk

Graphene pressure sensors embedded in shoes

Graphene pressure sensors embedded in shoes

FLEXIBLE WI-FI RECEIVER

More wireless fidelity can be expected when graphene-based receivers come into play. The receivers based on graphene are small and flexible and can be used for integration into clothes and other textile applications. AMO GmbH and RWTH Aachen University are developing the first flexible Wi-Fi receiver. The underlying graphene MMIC process enables the fabrication of the Wi-Fi receiver on both flexible and rigid substrates. This flexible Wi-Fi receiver is the first graphene-based front-end receiver for any type of modulated signal. The research shows that this technology can be used up to 90 GHz, which opens it up to new applications in IoT and mobile phones. More information: www.amo.de

Using graphene in flexible Wi-Fi receiver

Using graphene in flexible Wi-Fi receiver

5″ DISPLAY WITH UP TO 12K RESOLUTION

Santiago Cartamil-Bueno, a PhD student at TU Delft, was the first to observe a change in colors of small graphene “balloons.” These balloons appear when pressure is applied in a double layer of graphene. When this graphene is placed over silicon with small indents, the balloons can move in and out the silicon dents. If the graphene layer is closer to the silicon, they turn blue. If it is farther away from the silicon, they will turn red. Santiago observed this effect first and is researching the possibilities to turn this effect into high-resolution display. It uses the light from the environment and turns it into a very low-power consumption process. The resolution is very high; a typical 5″ display would be able to show images with 8K to 12K resolution. More information:
www.delta.tudelft.nl/artikel/ballooning-graphene-may-be-used-as-pixel/32619

Creativity Lives Here

An Interview with Jean Noel Lefebvre

With the proliferation of affordable ‘Net-connected technologies during the last decade, the nontechnical members of society have come to realize that electrical engineering is an exceedingly creative endeavor. Outside-the-box innovators like Jean Noel Lefebvre are literally reinventing how we interact with the world around us.

By Wisse Hettinga

Lefebvre-P1

Jean Noel Lefebvre is an electronics engineer with a strong interest in how people interact with the electronic systems. A true outside-the-box thinker, started his company, Ootsidebox (www.ootsidebox.fr), right in the middle of the YouFactory fab lab in Lyon, France. He knows where creativity lives and is willing to show it to you. Meet Jean Noel Lefebvre.

HETTINGA: Why do you have your office in the middle of the fab lab?

LEFEBVRE: The fab lab here is a wonderful place where people can come to do some 3-D printing, laser cutting, or to work with electronics. But perhaps more importantly, it is a place where you can meet other people, where you can learn new skills and find new ideas and inspiration.

HETTINGA: That is important for you—the interaction between technology and others?

LEFEBVRE: Yes, that has always been part of my projects. My first invention was the Ootside box. It was a touch application and it allowed you to control a computer or a system just by pointing or with gestures. We tried raising enough funds on Indigogo to continue developing it, but unfortunately, we did not reach our targets. After that, I decided to name my company after this project. Through this project, I also discovered the Arduino ecosystem and the enormously inspiring world of makers and fab labs. I always was interested in electronics, but when you are very young, you have no idea what you are doing and all my radios and sound equipment failed. That is what I learn here—how to help people, sometimes young people, understand how electronics works.

Lefebvre-P2

HETTINGA: And what do they need to learn?

LEFEBVRE: Good soldering! If you learn good soldering, you are already halfway to a successful project. I sometimes do soldering classes in schools. I bring some easy soldering projects and some equipment, and it is very rewarding to see how the kids are able to make their first electronic project.

HETTINGA: You are a big fan of Arduino.

LEFEBVRE: Indeed. The Arduino platform and ecosystem is important because of its low threshold to the world of electronics. Arduino is even so important and valuable that I decided to make a real gold version, the Golduino. I have it here, and it is still work in progress, but for people who want to have something special and valuable, it will be a great thing to have or to give to others.

Lefebvre-P3

HETTINGA: Again, I see you have a special take on electronics. And again, this refers to a special interaction between people and electronics.

LEFEBVRE: I feel that is very important. The world of technology can make people alone and isolated with very little room for emotions. Take the IoT developments as an example. You can see it as a world of sensors, actuators, and huge amounts of data. You can easily get lost. To find a response to that, I am doing a special project called “Color the World.” It will be a Wi-Fi-connected lamp that will take the color of everything you hold in front of it. In the back, there will be a world map where you can “share” you color with others and color the world. On Earth Day you can all decide to color the world green, make your part of the world yellow if the sun shines, or blue if the world is “blue.”

HETTINGA: And you found a way to keep playing your old EP records?

LEFEBVRE: Ha, yes. If you are like me, you will still have your old EP vinyl records, but no easy way to play them anymore. With my Floating Disc Player, you will be able to use the cover of the EP to play your favorite music again. Inside the EP cover, there is an RFID tag, and the moment you insert the EP in the player, it will recognize the song in the playlist and start the music. It is a great player for home parties!

Lefebvre-P4

HETTINGA: What more are you working on?

LEFEBVRE: Again, it is interaction, I am afraid. I am making an interface for the Airbar. The Airbar is an infrared sensor bar that originally was developed to turn your laptop screen into a touch screen. With my interface, it will be possible to turn everything like desks, whiteboards, displays, and windows into interactive areas. You can draw a piano keyboard on a piece of paper, launch the application, and you can start playing by just touching the paper. The resolution is good enough to recognize your writing on plain paper, turn that into a digital pattern, and display that in an application.
HETTINGA: This will all be available for others?

LEFEBVRE: Yes, it will be available on my website www.ootsidebox.fr. It will be all open source, so everyone who is interested can continue developing the product.

HETTINGA: You know where creativity lives?

LEFEBVRE: Yes, that’s easy. It lives where open-minded people come together and want to share their ideas with others. That is why fab labs, tech shops, and makerspaces are important—open places where people can walk in, have a coffee and a chat, and go away with new ideas.

Advances in 3-D Printing and Related Technologies – Nicolas Roux

Q&As with Industry Innovators – Circuit Cellar Issue #323, July 2017

Nicolas Roux
Founder/CEO | Zimple

C. J.: Tell us about your background and technical interests.

NICOLAS: I am an embedded system engineer, with a background in electronics and mechanics. I fell in love with 3-D printing four years ago, and then I started to make some personal projects (RC cars, lights, toys). My cofounder, Antoine, is a data scientist student passionate by the internet.

C. J.: How did you get started with 3-D printing? A school project? A personal project?

NICOLAS: I started to work with 3-D printers four years ago, with a Prusa i3. Since my childhood, I have always loved making things. I have tried all the construction games! After my preparatory class, which is a two-year intensive program preparing you to pass the competitive examination for engineering school, I bought my first 3-D printer in order to restart making things, with my own ideas and designs. Being able to design, print, and try something I’ve got in my mind is a huge pleasure for me. Since I’ve tried it four years ago, I never stopped to make things!

C. J.: Your company Zimple’s focus is “3-D printing without toxic emissions.” What led you to this mission?

NICOLAS: After using a lot of different 3-D printers, I found that all of them have some problems regarding their use. So with Zimple, we want to share the solutions I found to counter the problem I’ve been facing with my 3-D printers. The fumes released by 3-D printers was the biggest problem for me. It really smells bad and gives me headache. After looking into research on the subject, I realized that this issue was really important and theses fumes were very harmful. So, tired of keeping my window open with my printer nearby, I decided to develop a solution. I had the idea of this solution: “hoovering” the particles directly at the nozzle, because I found it more elegant, less expensive, and more scalable on my different printers than building an enclosure.

C. J.: It seems logical that the air around a working 3-D printer isn’t as clean as the air in an empty room. But is there hard data on the negative effects of exposure to printer-related toxins?

ZimpureDelta

NICOLAS: Many studies about the emissions when processing thermoplastic are available on the Internet. The results are unambiguous: they are very toxic and released in huge amounts. After talking with many people around the 3-D printing industry and the thermoplastic ecosystem, we realized that this problem is known by every professional. They are all aware of the fumes released by the fusion of thermoplastic, and so they use big and powerful exhausting systems when melting plastic. Desktop 3-D printing is a very new technology. It’s the first time that a real manufacturing machine can be placed in a living room, on a desktop near an engineer, or in a school room. And this is the problem: people tend to forget that 3-D printers are real manufacturing boxes and not computers. The technology will reach the point where everyone will be able to use it as we use photocopiers, but even photocopiers have a particle filter inside it. It’s just a question of time before all 3-D printers will have a built-in filter.

C. J.: Tell us how you came to develop Zimpure, which is a compact air filtering system. In terms of engineering, what were the biggest problems associated with designing the system?

NICOLAS: With Zimpure we wanted to develop an efficient and compact filtering system. The two main challenges in terms of engineering were: First, to find a way to exhaust all the gases and particles, without using a huge and loud exhausting fan. Then, to use the filter that will be able to filter all the nanoparticles and gases released. Testing these two points isn’t easy, because you can’t see the particles. Even if the ABS smell disappeared when we were turning on Zimpure, we wanted to know how efficient it was on both issues: nanoparticles and gases. To do so, we’ve collaborated with a laboratory (CEA) in the Laboratory of Climate and Environment Science department (LSCE). They kindly provide us the measuring instruments we need to conduct our tests. After testing our prototype, we improved it to reach our goal: a 99% particle filtration ratio and more than 90% for the gases. We are now proud of, and confident in, our product, and we rely on it every day in our office and home.

C. J.: Give us an overview of Zimpure. Tell us more about what it does and its benefits.

NICOLAS: So Zimpure is a very compact (160 × 120 × 124 mm) and silent (around 50 dB, a bit less than some printers). And it’s a really efficient exhausting and filtering system. (It filters 99% of the particles and more than 90% of the gases released while printing.) It is also a very affordable product. We sold it for $108 (€99) on Kickstarter. The final price is $162.80 (€149). The enclosure or cover we can buy costs between $273 and $327. That’s not possible for many of us. That’s why we choose to make Zimpure more affordable.

C. J.: Compatibility with the many 3-D printers on the market could be a problem. How are you dealing with compatibility?

NICOLAS: Our Zimpure is the same for all the 3-D printers. The only change concerns the suction head, because printers don’t have exactly the same extruders. That’s why the users will print themselves their suction head, depending on their printer. Being able to ask our customers to print a custom part gives our project an affordable cost. It also connects us to our community in a very pleasant way. We can talk about the emission issues and compatibility design. We love it! Community is the strength of 3-D printing. We are designing and testing suction heads for a lot of 3-D printers. The final user will be able to download his own suction head on our website. He will just have to print it and Zimpure will be ready to clean! Many 3-D printer users are designers or engineers, so we think they will probably adapt or even improve our suction heads for their specific needs. We will share some CAD files in order to make them easier to modify.

C. J.: You exceeded your Kickstarter goal in April 2017. What are your plans now?

NICOLAS: We are currently running our production—a batch of 500 Zimpures. When it is, done we will go in different fab labs and resellers to test new suction heads on other 3-D printers and to present our product. We will send all the Zimpure units before the end of June 2017 for sure. Some backers will even receive it by the end of May.

C. J.: Any new products in the pipeline?

NICOLAS: Zimpure is going to evolve this year, and two other products are coming.

C. J.: Where do you see the 3-D printing industry going in the next five to 10 years?

NICOLAS: 3-D printing is going to be more and more used by everyone in society. Personal 3-D printers will maybe take longer to come up, but we think everyone will be able to access them and more and more products using the technology will appear. 3-D printing is a disruptive technology that enables us to mass produce custom products. It will be used more and more for production purposes and not only prototyping.

www.zimple3d.com 

Creativity Lives Here: An Interview with Jean Noel Lefebvre

Jean Noel Lefebvre is an electronics engineer with a strong interest in how people interact with the electronic systems. A true outside-the-box thinker, started his company, Ootsidebox, right in the middle of the YouFactory fab lab in Lyon, France. He knows where creativity lives and is willing to show it to you. Meet Jean Noel Lefebvre.

“I am making an interface for the Airbar. The Airbar is an infrared sensor bar that originally was developed to turn your laptop screen into a touch screen. With my interface, it will be possible to turn everything like desks, whiteboards, displays, and windows into interactive areas. You can draw a piano keyboard on a piece of paper, launch the application, and you can start playing by just touching the paper. The resolution is good enough to recognize your writing on plain paper, turn that into a digital pattern, and display that in an application.”

Adaptive Robotics: An Interview with Henk Kiela

The Adaptive Robotics Lab at Fontys University in Eindhoven, Netherlands, has a high “Q” factor (think “007”). Groups of students are always working on robotics projects. Systems are constantly humming. Robots are continually moving around. Amid the melee, Circuit Cellar interviewed Professor Henk Kiela about the lab, innovations like adaptive robotics, and more.

“Adaptive robotics is the new breed of robots that are going to assist workers on the shopfloor and that will take care of a high variety of routine activities. Relieving them from routine work allows the workers to concentrate on their skills and knowledge and prevent them from getting lost in details. In a car-manufacturing operation you have a lot of robots doing more or less the same job, a top-down controlled robotization. We recognise that the new generation of robots will act more like an assistant for the worker— a flexible workforce that can be configured for different types of activities.”—Henk Kiela

Interview: Massimo Banzi, Codeveloper of Arduino

It’s no secret that the Arduino development board has changed the way we look at working with electronics. All over the world, the little board has enabled millions of engineers, students, artists, and makers to get electronics projects up and going. We recently traveled to DotDotDot in Milan, Italy, to chat with Arduino codeveloper Massimo Banzi, who talked about the history of Arduino, the importance of makerspaces, and more.

Watch the video

Raspberry Pi Maker: An Interview with Eben Upton

About five years ago, a small group of enthusiast designers led by Eben Upton launched a small, inexpensive computer that looked nothing like a normal computer. The bare green PCB board appealed to makers and hackers and the option to connect a keyboard and screen appealed to traditional computer nerds. Today, the Raspberry Pi is the best-selling personal computer in the United Kingdom.

Circuit Cellar recently visited Cambridge, England, to interview Upton about his work at the Raspberry Pi Foundation and more. Check it out.

Boldport Club: Behind the Scenes

We first met London-based engineer Saar Drimer in December 2015. At that time, his was running Boldport—a hardware and prototyping consultancy that specializes in circuit boards—from a workspace was in one of the characteristic arches underneath London Bridge Station. A lot has changed since then. Today, Drimer has a new workspace and he is running Boldport Club, which is a monthly electronics hardware subscription service. We recently met up with him to discuss his work and newest endeavors.

“The big change is the club I started early this year,” Drimer explained. “I posted my initial ideas online and the response was very promising, around 170 members signed up in the first month.”

Produced in Spain: Startup for Hardware Security Solutions

When you talk about a startup, you likely envision bearded hipsters drinking fancy coffee at their expensive Macs. But not all startups are cut from the same cloth. Consider the following case. We recently met with a small team of talented long-time engineers in Madrid that is swimming against the tide. After working for many years in the electronics design industry, the engineers now innovating secure hardware products at a startup with big ideas and lofty goals.

Engineering, Consulting, & Nonstop Innovation

Engineer and author Robert Lacoste has been designing and innovating for more than two decades. Fortunately for us, Robert is also an excellent writer who regularly publishes Circuit Cellar articles on the “dark” and difficult side of engineering. Over the years, he has taught us about topics ranging from direct digital synthesis to RF mixers to bipolar transistor biasing.

This week, Robert gives us a tour of his consulting company, Alciom, which is based just outside of Paris. He also talks about his electronics equipment and his love for difficult projects.

Buying Electronics at Lamington Road, Mumbai

Want to see what it’s like buying electronics (e.g., Arduino, displays, and general components) in Mumbai? Circuit Cellar correspondent and videographer Wisse Hettinga joins engineer Nishant Mittal on a tour of Lamington Road, Mumbai, India. This street is famous for the many electronics shops. You can find virtually any component you can think of.


 

“Together with Nishan Mittal, we go inside Lamington Road and discover one of the biggest electronics markets in the world,” Hettinga says. In this video they search for a good price on an Arduino.
 

Check out a free sample issue of Circuit Cellar magazine. If you like what you read, use the link in the sample for a discount subscription — 25% off!

Brain Control: An Interview with Dr. Max Ortiz Catalan

Dr. Max Ortiz Catalan is Research Director at Integrum AB, a medical device company based in Molndal, Sweden. Wisse Hettinga recently interviewed him about his work in the field of prosthetic design and biomedical systems.MOC_Lab3

As an electrical engineer, your first focus is to create new technology or to bring a new schematic design come to life. Dr. Max Ortiz Catalan is taking this concept much further. His research and work is enabling people to really start a new life!

People without an upper limb often find it difficult to manage tasks due to the limitations of prostheses. Dr. Catalan’s research at Chalmers University of Technology and Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, focuses on the use of osseointegrated implants and a direct electronic connection between the nervous system and a prosthetic hand. People can control the prosthesis just like you control your hand, and they are able to sense forces as well. The results are impressive. The first patient received his implant three years ago and is successfully using it today. And more patients will be treated this year. I recently interviewed Dr. Catalan about his work. I trust this interview will inspire seasoned and novice engineers alike.—Wisse Hettinga

HETTINGA: What led you to this field of research?

CATALAN: I was always interested in working on robotics and the medical field. After my bachelor’s in electronics, my first job was in the manufacturing industry, but I soon realized that I was more interested in research and the development of technology. So I left that job to go back to school and do a master’s in Complex Adaptive System. I also took some additional courses in biomedical engineering and then continued working in this field where I did my doctoral work.

HETTINGA: I was surprised you did not mention the word “robot” once in your TEDx presentation (“Bionic Limbs Integrated to Bone, Nerves, and Muscles”)? Was that coincidence or on purpose?

CATALAN: That was coincidence, you can call a prosthesis a “robotic device” or “robotic prosthesis.” When you talk about a “robot,” you often see it as an independent entity. In this case, the robotic arm is fully controlled by the human so it makes more sense to talk about bionics or biomechatronics.

HETTINGA: What will be the next field of research for you?

CATALAN: The next step for us is the restoration of the sense of touch and proprioception via direct nerve stimulation, or “neurostimulation.” We have developed an embedded control system for running all the signal processing and machine learning algorithms, but it also contains a neurostimulation unit that we use to elicit sensations in the patient that are perceived as arising from the missing limb. The patients will start using this system in their daily life this year.

HETTINGA: You are connecting the controls of the prosthesis with nerves. How do you connect a wire to a nerve?

CATALAN: There are a variety of neural interfaces (or electrodes) which can be used to connect with the nerves. The most invasive and selective neural interfaces suffer from long-term instability. In our case we decided to go for a cuff electrode, which is considered as a extra-neural interface since it does not penetrate the blood-nerve barrier and is well tolerated by the body for long periods of time, while also remaining functional.

HETTINGA: Can you explain how the nerve signals are transferred into processable electric signals?

CATALAN: Electricity travels within the body in the form of ions and the variations in electric potentials, or motor action potentials for control purposes. They are transduced into electrons by the electrodes so the signals can be finally amplified by analog electronics and then decoded on the digital side to reproduce motor volition by the prosthesis.

HETTINGA: What is the signal strength?

CATALAN: Nerve signals (ENG) are in the order of microvolts and muscle signals (EMG) in the order of millivolts.

HETTINGA: What technologies are you using to cancel out signal noise?

CATALAN: We use low-noise precision amplifiers and active filtering for the initial signal conditioning, then we can use adaptive filters implemented in software if necessary.

HETTINGA: How do you protect the signals being disturbed by external sources or EM signals?

CATALAN: Since we are using implanted electrodes, we use the body as a shielding, as well as the titanium implant and the electronics housing. This shielding becomes part of the amplifier’s reference so it is rejected as common noise.

HETTINGA: How are the signals transferred from the nerves to the prosthesis?

CATALAN: The signals from nerves and muscles are transferred via the osseointegrated implant to reach the prosthesis where they are amplified and processed. In a similar ways, signals coming from sensors in the prosthesis are sent into the body to stimulate the neural pathways that used to be connected to the biological sensors in the missing hand. Osseointegration is the key difference between our work and previous approaches.

HETTINGA: What sensors technologies are you using in the prosthetic hand?

CATALAN: At this point it is rather straightforward with strain gauges and FSRs (Force Sensitive Resistor), but on research prostheses, motors are normally instrumented as well so we can infer joint angles.

This interview appears in Circuit Cellar 307 February.

Mitch Altman—Maker, Hacker, Traveler

Mitch Altman is an inventor (TV-B-Gone), hacker and traveler whose ideas will inspire many of us to join a hackerspace and get creative with the design community. Circuit Cellar recently met up with Altman at FabLab Berlin, Germany. Altman talks about hacking and presents a new synthesizer, which is a board with an Arduino, sound amplifier, and keyboard-shaped pads to play music.

21st-Century Electronics Craftsman: Meet Saar Drimer

Saar Drimer (PhD, Cambridge) runs Boldport, a London-based hardware and prototyping consultancy that specializes in circuit boards. Wisse Hettinga recently met with Drimer to discuss PCB design, electronics craftsmanship, and his various engineering projects.

Saar Drimer, electronics craftman

Saar Drimer, electronics craftman

Hettinga writes:

The Art of Electronics is a book that’s well-known by many electronic engineers all over the world. Written by Horowitz and Hill, the first edition was published in 1980 and recently, in 2015, a third edition was released. Over the past 35 years, the book has been an inspiration and resource for many engineers eager to learn about the art of designing with electronics. But there is also a real art of electronics. To discover what that is, I traveled to London to meet up with Saar Drimer. His workplace was in one of the characteristic arches underneath London Bridge Station. With the constant rumble of the trains arriving and pulling out of the station in the background, he showed me some of his work.

SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
Drimer’s designs are completely different from what we usually see on PCBs. Where most of our designs end up as small rectangles with only a few holes for the assembly screws, his boards take different shapes. Some are swirly, sometimes animal-like. At other times, he integrates components right into the board in special holes, as you can see in his Tiny Engineer Superhero Emergency Kit. Often there is no straight copper line to be found; they go all over the place and are a vital part of the total design.

Emergency kit

The Tiny Engineer Superhero Emergency kit

A PCB designed by Drimer asks for exposure and can be interesting for art’s sake only, but also for marketing purposes where drawing attention and presenting a surprise is required. One of his designs even features in the women’s magazine Marie Claire!

DESIGNING THE OTHER WAY AROUND
Where many of us try to put all the PCB and wiring in a (mostly) gray box and leave it out of sight, Drimer is doing exactly the opposite: he is trying to expose it. His end product is the PCB and that is where his art comes into the picture—in many exciting formats. In many ways, Saar is an engineer like many of us. He is extremely knowledgeable about electronics and designing. But when it comes to the latter, he is using unorthodox methods. Where we start with the schematics, Drimer starts with the form and shape of the final PCB—basically, he designs the other way around!

Working and designing in the opposite direction is not easy with existing PCB CAD programs like Eagle or Altium. They all start with a schematic and are using component libraries routing the final layout in the most effective or smallest footprint PCB. Their rigid, straightforward approach is excellent when designing for just another rectangle PCB. But if you want new and creative designs, you need to think of a different way of working and using other tools. If you want to change the way of thinking and designing, you need to be able to use free forms and the routing cannot be left to the CAD program. And that is exactly what Drimer is doing.

THE CRAFTSMAN’S TOOL
To be able to start with a different type of design, Drimer was left with no choice but to start developing his own PCB CAD design program. Unlike most of us who call ourselves “engineer,” Drimer calls himself ”craftsman”—and as a true craftsmen, he makes his own tools. PCBmodE is Drimer’s custom PCB CAD program. The “mod” in PCBmodE has a double meaning, Drimer explained. “The first is short for ‘modern’ in contrast to tired, old EDA tools. The second is a play on the familiar ‘modifications,’ or ‘mods,’ done to imperfect PCBs. Call it ‘PCB mode’ or ‘PCB mod E’, whichever you prefer,” he said.
PCBmodE is a PCB design Python script that creates an SVG from JSON input files. It then creates Gerber (the standard software to describe the PCB images: copper layers, soldering mask, legend, etc.) and Excellon files for manufacturing. With no graphical interface, PCBmodE enables you to place any arbitrary shape on any layer because it is natively vector-based. Most of the design is done in a text editor with viewing and some editing (routing) completed with Inkscape. (Inkscape is a professional vector graphics editor for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. It’s free and open source.) On his website, Drimer explains how to work with the program.

“PCBmodE was originally conceived as a tool that enables the designer to precisely define and position design elements in a text file, and not through a GUI. For practical reasons, PCBmodE does not have a GUI of its own, and uses an unmodified Inkscape for visual representation and some editing that cannot practically be done textually,” said Drimer.

A typical PCBmodE design workflow is as follows:

  • Edit JSON files with a text editor
  • “Compile” the board using PCBmodE
  • View the generated SVG in Inkscape
  • Make modifications in Inkscape
  • Extract changes using PCBmodE
  • Back to step 1 or step 2
  • Generate production files using PCBmodE

If you want to give PCBmodE a try, simply download it at www.pcbmode.com. It works with Linux, but Drimer is interested in results on other OS platforms as well. For starters, a “hello solder” design is currently available.

Hello Solder

Starter example: Hello Solder

THE CRAFTSMAN’S WORK
Examples of Drimer’s work are posted on his website, www.boldport.com. I especially like the Tiny Engineer Superhero Emergency Kit’ design where the components are integrated into the PCB itself resulting in a very flat design. You will also notice he is not using straight lines and angles for the traces. It is more of a pencil drawing; the traces flow along the lines of the PCB and components.

You might ask why on earth someone would put so much effort into all of this? Don’t ask! But, if you like, here are a few answers. First, because it is an art. Second, it is Drimer’s full-time job and he hopes to expand the business. And third, working differently from the norm tends to generate fresh ideas and exciting solutions—and that is what we need more of.

This article appears in Circuit Cellar 306 (January 2016).