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Blog

Beyond square and green

Saar Drimer

The TAP, a Boldport Club project featuring a TI component.

The TAP, a Boldport Club project featuring a TI component.

Last time I sat to write this blog post I ended up writing a story about the borderline abusive nature of some of the kits and tools engineers use, ironically supplied to us by semiconductor companies who would like us to evaluate, and develop with, their components. My point was going to be that as an industry we can do much better in this area and here I'll describe how.

If there was semiconductor heaven, companies would get as many multi-million-unit orders as they can handle with the minimum amount of pre-sale costs and minimum support (also 100% yields, their own fab, and no distributors, but perhaps even heaven cannot manage that!)

The Cuttle, a Boldport Club project featuring an ATMEL MCU.

The Cuttle, a Boldport Club project featuring an ATMEL MCU.

Since there is no heaven, semicon companies and distributors make an effort to entice engineers to evaluate, switch, or become aware of their products in the hopes that one of those leads will eventually become a multi-million order. Part of this effort culminates in embarrassingly bad videos, vital documentation behind a registration-wall, vital information behind a distributor-wall, or really hard to use hardware. Whilst I can only whinge about the former few on Twitter, I can actually help with the latter. I've dedicated a few years of my life to exploring this space, even writing my own PCB design tool to do a better job at it.

Let's take evaluation kits. Ideally, we'd like them to

  • Be well presented and evoke a sense of purpose, curiosity, excitement, and anticipation;
  • be easy to use — from unpacking to useful within minutes;
  • demonstrate the unique features of the product very well; and
  • be memorable, useful, appealing, and worthy of sharing with others. 
Touchy, a Boldport Club project featuring a SiliconLabs MCU

Touchy, a Boldport Club project featuring a SiliconLabs MCU

These properties demonstrate great care for the engineer's time, and project a modern approach to user experience (as opposed the what we get from the tradition of 'walled favelas' and an entrenched lock-in culture). It's clear to me that respecting engineers through hardware, documentation, and tools has great positive impact on brand association.

Unfortunately, most kits I see out there fail the points above. They are more likely to end up in a drawer, cursed at, or smashed than be on an engineer's desk when they are designing in components for a new project. They are also much less likely to be shared with colleagues or on social media.

OK. Maybe it's not so bad, but we can certainly do better.

PissOff, a Boldport Club project featuring an NXP MCU

PissOff, a Boldport Club project featuring an NXP MCU

I'm an engineer, but my approach to hardware has changed over the years. From complete focus on function early in my career, to treating form and function with the same import. I argue that considering form as early as spec'ing functionality invariably leads to more effective designs. This is the method we apply to all our work at Boldport.

The Matrix is a Boldport Club project kindly sponsored by AMS and Eurocircuits.

The Matrix is a Boldport Club project kindly sponsored by AMS and Eurocircuits.

I cannot share ongoing work with semiconductor companies who have bought into this narrative, but here's a recent public example.

I've designed The Matrix as a soldering kit for the Boldport Club and sent it to over 430 members last month. It is designed around AMS's very capable AS1130 LED matrix driver, which AMS kindly donated for the project. Eurocircuits, my go-to PCB fab, also kindly supported the project through sponsorship. After having a Boldport Club membership this kit costs £17.

Putting the soldering bit aside — eval and demo kits come assembled — let's evaluate The Matrix against the criteria above. It's packaged neatly in a multi-purpose box that's normally used for jewellery. Once soldered it's immediately useful with any platform that can drive an I2C peripheral — Arduino, Raspberry Pi, etc. — helpfully Boldport Club members have written comprehensive open source drivers for the chip (Arduino, Python). It can work with any OS; the kit itself does not require any special drivers or software. It simply and effectively demonstrates the features of the chip, nothing more; it's not over-engineered. It's useful and fun — just look at what Joey Hagedorn did with it. (I'm pretty certain that this one won't go into many drawers.) Finally, the design is open source hardware so that engineers can easily use it in their projects.

Now compare this with the existing $249 AS1130 demonstration kit.

I encourage companies to think about their target audience's time and mentality. We engineers have very acute sense for marketing spin; we want to get stuff done effectively, but we also like playing with 'toys'. Understanding and factoring this and other 'engineering culture' aspects into a complete experience journey with a product is vital for a successful launch or promotion of a product, even if it's a humble eval kit! Those companies who understand that will undoubtedly benefit from this refreshing approach.

Of course we can help companies with all of that at Boldport, and we'd like to work with you to make this happen. But being an end user of some of these products, I'm generally more interested in better tools for engineers, whoever ends up designing them.

Juice, a Boldport Club project featuring a TI component

Juice, a Boldport Club project featuring a TI component