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A case study of designing a trophy for engineers

Saar Drimer

ElectronicsWeekly and RS components have contacted me earlier this year to design a trophy to be awarded to the 29 winners of the Bright Sparks 2017 programme at the beginning of May. This is a first in what will become an annual event.

It was a given that the trophy would be made of circuit board material since this is what I specialise in. The brief was completely open except for a unit cost. More generally, EW and RS were interested in something that stands out from typical trophies one can get anywhere. For me, the challenge was to create an item that naturally sits on an engineer's desk and that is the least likely to be forgotten in a drawer. Moreover, I wanted this trophy to spark a conversation about creativity in engineering generally, and at the engineer's workplace.

Already during the initial phone call with EW I knew that some elements of circuit board manufacturing could fit well here: ENIG (gold) finish, edge plating, and detachable panelised elements. Initially I sketched concepts where the three pieces came as a panel — the main body and two smaller stand pieces that will slot into the main piece, and then soldered in place by the recipients. This would have given them an active part in assembling the trophy, an experience that they could never have with a traditional trophy.

First concept sketch. A panel to be assembled by the recipient with a detachable medal. Here I already had concerns about how to reattach the medal once it has been removed.

First concept sketch. A panel to be assembled by the recipient with a detachable medal. Here I already had concerns about how to reattach the medal once it has been removed.

Second concept sketch. Adding metal backing would add weight and could solve stability, assembly, and reattachment of the medal.

Second concept sketch. Adding metal backing would add weight and could solve stability, assembly, and reattachment of the medal.

I viewed the trophy itself as a stand for a 'gold' medal that could be detached and be placed back. So while the trophy as a whole will attract attention from afar, the medal itself is the centrepiece.

I often use a cardboard mock-up to check stability and physical appearance. This image was sent to EW and RS for approval.

I often use a cardboard mock-up to check stability and physical appearance. This image was sent to EW and RS for approval.

A typical trophy would be quite heavy. Weight is sometimes how we intuitively associate value with. The finished article needed to weigh around 300g, and for that I knew that I needed to add something heavy to the piece, as the circuit board a alone (about 15cm in diameter) would only weigh about 100g, even with the use of 2.4mm thick circuit board.

I started looking at stainless steel backing. Together with screws and nuts — which gave the piece some depth and an industrial look — I could reach 300g.

At this point I re-evaluated the 'delivery-as-a-panel' concept as it

  • would make it hard to display, like they did at the event;
  • would need to come with some instructions;
  • may never be assembled; or
  • may be assembled poorly.

I also realised that with the metal backing and a thick bracket I could both have the weight I wanted, lower the centre of gravity for better stability,  and create a robust construction without soldering. That sounded good.

By coincidence, we had our first Boldport Club meetup in London just when I was finalising the outline of the circuit board. There, Mike Harrison mentioned — without knowing about this project — that he uses a 'trick' where he adds ridges to slots that could be easily filed away if the dimension isn't quite right. Since I had only one go at this I adopted this idea. It turned out to be quite helpful as it allows very fine adjustment during assembly, as there is some tolerances in PCB outline routing.

The view of the top layer from within Inkscape using PCBmodE. Notice the ridges in the outline's slots.

The view of the top layer from within Inkscape using PCBmodE. Notice the ridges in the outline's slots.

View of the bottom layer.

View of the bottom layer.

Once I had the final outline of the circuit board my friends at Aeguana, with whom I share an office, helped me with modelling the trophy and generating the files for a metal fabricator.

The mechanical drawings by Aeguana helped get the dimensions right for the metal work.

The mechanical drawings by Aeguana helped get the dimensions right for the metal work.

For PCB fabrication I chose Garner Osbourne. They are a UK manufacturer and I've been impressed with their top quality PCBs in the past. I knew that they do 'edge plating', which is something that I wanted to use in my previous designs but never had a chance to. ('Edge plating' can mean several things; here it's carefully routing through plated holes to leave finished copper on the edges of the PCB.) This was a good opportunity to both work with them and gain experience with this manufacturing technique. It was very helpful to have a direct line with their technical staff to make sure that I designed the board correctly for their maunfacturing process.

The back of the trophy. The main body and stands have a 1.5mm thick stainless steel backing attached with M3 screws and nuts. A custom 3mm thick stainless bracket holds everything together and adds weight. The position of the bracket also lowers the centre of gravity so that the piece sits solidly on the surface.

The back of the trophy. The main body and stands have a 1.5mm thick stainless steel backing attached with M3 screws and nuts. A custom 3mm thick stainless bracket holds everything together and adds weight. The position of the bracket also lowers the centre of gravity so that the piece sits solidly on the surface.

My aim with the design itself was to use elements that I would otherwise use with a functional circuit. There are pads, tracks, plated holes, and a hatched pattern that's called 'thieving' (this more evenly distributes copper on the board for the plating process). The exposed and covered tracks connected to the pads on the edges is meant to look like a network switch. The medal is made with the reverse of exposed copper and soldermask as one would normally expect, using the soldermask as a colour accent over gold. I've used this technique before for the 'tiny engineer superhero Emergency kit'.

I delivered the trophies under budget and on time, which is always a nice outcome for all involved. The event took place in early May at the Houses of Parliament in London and I understand that the recipients liked what they've received. I wish them the best and I sincerely hope that they do not put the trophy in a drawer any time soon!

All the best to the recipients of the award!

All the best to the recipients of the award!

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

A fictional story in square and green

Saar Drimer

So I walked down the endless aisles of a large trade-show full of companies selling electronic components. The company I work for sent me here. I'm wading past dozens of them seeking something that catches my eye. They all sell basically the same stuff but with a slight twist that's promoted to 'game-changing' by marketing. Slightly less power here, slightly lower cost at 1M+ units there, slightly longer detection range in the rain, or slightly more robust on Tuesdays. Stripping down the flashy branding everything pretty much looked the same. Not to make this a waste of time and my employer's money, I decided to talk to a few of them. In the process I picked up a couple of evaluation kits. They were the typical 'square green and boring' fare and certainly not something I'd tweet a picture of or show the gang back at the office. It's as if they didn't care that they look and feel like they came from the 90s. Well, I'm kind of used to that; a lot of stuff I use in engineering looks this way. Anyway, there's a remote possibility that these eval boards become useful, but they're drawer-filler material and everyone knows it.

Months later I got an assignment and while looking for an evaluation kit for a chip, I remembered that I have one in my drawer! That drawer is full of these poor neglected evaluation and development kits that I've never touched. I feel sorry for them sometimes. I know that it's strange to feeling sorry for electronics, but there you go. That eval board had the previous generation IC on it, which is mildly annoying. I like having the latest stuff but to save the company some money I decided to try and make it work.

It came with a USB stick that miraculously survived the journey, and even more of a miracle is the fact that it's still next to the board! Damn. Windows software and I run Ubuntu. ("What if the stuff on this stick is malware? That could be a great vector to infect my machine. At least it's not a WindowsXP CD any longer because my laptop doesn't even have a drive for that.", I remember muttering to myself.) As the ritual goes I then spent two hours setting up a Windows virtual machine and fought it to recognise the USB1.1 device through the USB3 host port. What made it work eventually was plugging it through a USB2 hub. Go figure. I tamed the machine but it didn't feel like a victory at all.

I fired up the software. It asked for my contact details so that it can email me an activation code. Craaaap! Those pesky market-y types even made sure that it won't accept @mailinator.com addresses. "Why should I need to give them my details to evaluate their product?! It doesn't make any sense!", I shouted internally. Then I calmed down. I got the activation code. I cursed at the two marketing emails. I activated the software. The relationship with this vendor hasn't started too well. They're abusing my good will from the get-go.

Yup. The software couldn't talk to the evaluation board as it needed some drivers that are bundled with the manufacturer's custom IDE. The firmware also needs to be updated otherwise the thing won't work. I spent another couple of hours downloading and installing the IDE. While I waited I realised that this 'kit' felt more like a punishment than a gift and I started regretting my decisions at the show, much like what I imaging a Brexit voter feels with the rising cost of Marmite.

OK. It worked. All of this so I could move my hand in front of the thing and see numbers change on my screen. I guess that all of that was worth it. Well, hell, I'm actually pretty sure that it wasn't. I couldn't conveniently use this board because idiotically the sensor was in the centre of the board instead of a protruding edge where it might be useful for evaluation under other conditions. The I2C pins weren't conveniently exposed and I completely lost the motivation to go to the soldering station and hack on it. This shit should work out of the box! I ended up buying a £249 'development' kit from a competitor that was only slightly better. That shows me for trying to save money.

Now, if only they exposed the I2C pins through a header, put the IC somewhere sensible, and made some drivers available for Arduino or whatever, I could have just used it straight-away. But, no, they have to always create this 'walled favela' around their products. The lock-in is strong with this industry, you know. I'm starting to be fed up with 'them' not thinking about these sort of things. Next time I'm going to try to give 'my' business to a company that gives me a good experience — like decent datasheets, complete footprints and usable boards! — even if their devices are a bit more expensive. Unit cost is not all that should matter... the design experience should too.

What Boldport Club members say...

Saar Drimer

A few months ago I've asked members — and x-members and everyone else — to fill in a questionnaire. I wanted to learn a bit more about who members are and what they thought about the Club, projects, community, value, cost, etc. The questionnaire is still live if you want to fill it in.

I've also asked those who indicated that they are members to provide a public quote that I could later use on the website. I'm refreshing boldport.club so I just had a read through all of them in one go again. It made me feel really pleased with how the Club turned out, a year after conception. Even more so, it fills me with great joy to know that people appreciate the effort that I put into the work and that it has touched their lives. Thanks to all of you who take the time to write to me about what my work means to you. In turn, that means more than you can imagine to me.

Below are all the quotes that I've received, as I received them. Add more in the comments if you wish.

I never knew a soldering project could be beautiful!
— Happy BPC Member
As someone without any background in electronics or engineering, I was skeptical as to whether the Boldport Club would be fit for me. However, the stunning designs and the pleasure I get from building, documenting, using and even troubleshooting the projects together with other Club members soon made playing with electronics something I’m proud to call a hobby now!
— @Lophification
Boldport Club is the best source for pointless beauty, thought-provoking circuits and plain-old soldering practice in the world. I am thrilled to have an opportunity to experience all that plus the excitement of getting fun stuff in the mail every month.
— krisjaniz
I have long thought about learning more about electronics and this was a great format. The projects have taught me a lot of practical skills and the community is one of the most helpful, open and engaged I’ve ever encountered.
— Calle "Zeta Two" Svensson
I was taught electronics but I have never really understood it. Now I can solder, dimension a low-pass filter, program a microcontroller. This is just the beginning!
— Ronan
The projects are beautiful and so well thought through they are a joy to solder and assemble. Once they are built they are so many ways you can hack on them and play with them. On top of all that there’s a community built around the club with great people.
— Adam Bregenzer
Being a member has been awesome for 3 reasons -
1) I get to keep adding to my collection of PCB art from various designers.
2) I get a fun and interesting electronics kit each month without having to track down missing componants or have to submit files to OSHPark for my own boards. You get everything you need!
3) Its been super cool as a tool to help me teach my niece and other family members about basic electronics (and not so basic), which has been really positive!
— N.Pearce
The Boldport Club’s projects are nothing short of art. As well as teaching me valuable lessons about physics as a student, I really believe they encapsulate the spirit and the essence of kit building.
— Archie Roques — a young maker
You know when you get a vacation, a tropical island where the drinks on the beach come with little parasols? Yeah, me neither, but clever circuit boards are pretty cool, though.
— nocko
The Boldport Club provides a rich and engaging learning experience. I really enjoy receiving the projects.
— KR
As long as I receive the beautiful projects from Boldport I am sure the world hasn’t ended and the good is going to win in the end. Because the projects were manufactured with love and this is what you get to see.
— Member from Berlin
I’m a brand new member so have only just completed my first kit, but what I found irresistible about Boldport Club is the combination of electronics fun and self-education, packaged in an elegant regular monthly project, wrapped in a thriving and supportive community.
— Delighted New Club Member
I know I’ll build at least one circuit that works every month! And, it will look cute!
— whitequark
It’s Art. It’s Fun and it’s a challenge! Be a f**ing soldering electronic hero! :-)
— alias
The best part? Receiving a surprise box in the mail which gives me some quality time with my soldering iron and ends up in a beautifully designed piece of electronics, that even my girl find attractive.
— Toby Aumüller
A little time to myself...
— Anonymous
Strangely shaped boards with peculiar layouts that awaken your curiosity in electronics!
— Marc
As someone not good with electronics, I always learn from these projects and they are creatively designed so I have fun completing them.
— Conor Patrick
As someone just delving into the world of electronics the Boldport projects are challenging but incredibly rewarding. I have been impressed with the high quality and the beautiful design of each project and learn something from every one.
— Anonymous
After looking for solder kits that are beyond the “learn how to solder” ones out on the market, Boldport really helped satisfy my love for kit builds since it’s a unique service.
— Daniel Lukach
Saar offers another Engineering trade off for us to challenge our output. Are we always focused on putting out the cheapest, or smallest products? It’s time we put back form and function in our designs. Saar balances aesthetics in with cost, sourcing, size, scale, power etc. Sure it’s harder but that’s why we call it engineering and when it all falls into place you know it because it ‘feels right’!
— Mike Baranowski
Gained confidence that I can build ANYTHING by hand, even though I have years experience in the field as a professional. Great projects I cant find anywhere else.
— @F4R4D4Y.DC414
Once a month I get an interesting package from Britain that stretches my imagination and skills. After spending a few hours with a hot soldering iron I end up with an elegant bit of kit that I can show to family and friends to puzzle and delight them.
— Shoultz
“Want to finish that board?” “When time and enthusiasm has failed you” “boldport worthy of that center place in the display cabinet” Scratches the itch. The above semi cheesy marketing tag line thing says it all for me... mostly.
— Anything goes...
Ever looked for a DIY electronics kit subscription with projects which are not only cleverly designed, nicely documented but also very artful and sometimes challenging? Look no further, Boldport is exactly that!
— Which ever you prefer. ;)
The best part of the Boldport Club is knowing there are other people just like you out there.
— Alex Hitchins
I love being introduced to new and interesting parts through Boldport Club and the real-world projects they provide.
— @gareth__
Simple, quiet fun and “I built it” bragging rights
— Ted H
For anyone who enjoys building electronic circuits this is a great way to keep in practice and have some artistic conversation pieces you would not be afraid to put on the coffee table.
— Lawrence, Buranby, BC
Beyond the tangible aspects of the club, the (Slack) community adds immeasurable value to the membership. For any electronics enthusiast — be it the experienced professional through an amateur hobbyist — this is much, much more than a kit in your mailbox each month.
— Keith
I’s fun, it’s interesting and you wait for the next project.
— Robert Schwarz
I have the feeling I am part of a very interesting project going on
— GW
Small, but not simple, beautiful shapes in the form of kits that every month will teach you not only electronics and design, but without knowing it, what is to be human.
— Jorge A.
I really enjoy building electronics kits and learning new things. Boldport Club satisfies both.
— Anonymous
BoldPort has taught me that the hardware guys and gals have it just as hard as us software guys and gals... especially when it comes to soldering header pins on straight.
— MyztikJenz
The Boldport Club is a community of engineers and makers who appreciate the beauty of design hidden inside the devices that make our lives easier and more efficient every day. If you enjoy looking inside computers, taking apart phones, or fixing appliances, the Boldport Club might just be the place for you.
— Corey Shuman
Even practising engineers feel a disconnect between creative arts and technical work. The Bolport Club serves as a reminder that these are two sides of the same coin.
— Domenzain
A confluence of art, design, science humor and whimsy from an imaginative maker. Tinkering for fun, knowledge, and blinkly stuff. There’s a blurb for your book jacket.
— Zeke from Philadelphia
As a hobbiest, the regular high quality kits are a lot of fun to assemble and it is very fulfilling to receive a steady stream of projects to complete.
— merk

Boldport Club changes 2017

Saar Drimer

Hello Boldport Club members,

It's been over a year since I've announced Boldport Club. With more than 400 members and ten projects shipped I've learned a lot about a lot. I've had a clear vision for what I wanted to achieve and that remains as strong as ever; it's definitely working. How to achieve this vision changes with the parameters and time: the financial climate, number of members, availability of staff, availability of materials, my own availability, and many other factors.

During the two-month shipping pause I've decided to make some changes to how the Club operates. These are operational changes not changes in substance. Those changes are based on what I've learned through doing and also from what you've told me. The changes also reflect the maturity of the Club and it advancing from an experimental phase to something that will be running for a long time. That requires adjustments.

Cost

The monthly cost of a subscription is rising to £19 per month, still billed in three-month cycles at £57. This still includes taxes and shipping to where ever you are. The cost of projects at the shop will also increase.

A plummeting Pound and a near universal increase in prices by my suppliers pretty much forces me to take this administratively burdensome and possibly unpopular move. But I'd like to point out two things while I'm on the topic. Firstly, the original price was on the low side while still giving great value. I'm convinced of this because nearly all who responded the questionnaire — about 100 members — expressed that the Club provides good value for money. Also, remarkably, the churn rate has consistently remained under 4%. Secondly, the price that you pay is not only for the projects; it funds the concept that drives the Club and gives me resources and breadth to experiment, expand, and make exciting things happen.

The new membership price will be applied on the next renewal of your membership. This is done automatically; you don't need to do anything. Billing happens on the 28th of each month, so the month that this happens depends on when you last paid. To see when your next renewal is, log on to you account and check. If you don't want to be billed at the new cost, simply cancel the subscription before the billing date, and you'll only receive the projects that you paid for.

New subscription structure

There will now be only one membership option — a single project a month. To receive multiple instances of the project each month, you can purchase the subscription multiple times. (That is, we'll no longer have three-a-month or ten-a-month subscription options.) This subscription can be purchased on a three-month basis, as before, or a new yearly billing basis at a reduced price. These billing terms correspond to three and twelve different projects, respectively, not necessarily to a specific period.

If you're currently on a three- or ten-a-month subscription you'll be automatically moved to a single subscription from the next renewal. You'll then be able to add additional subscriptions as above. An alternative would be to buy additional kits at the shop each month while only having a single subscription.

If you want to move to a yearly billing cycle subscription, change your subscription at your admin console; this change will take effect on your next renewal.

No more 'deals'

I never felt comfortable with 'sign-up' discounts. They inadvertently mean that one values new customers over existing ones, which is exactly the opposite of what I want. Existing members are what makes the Club special and their satisfaction is my focus. My view is that a strong existing community will attract new members organically without gimmicks and monetary incentives. I will therefore not offer any future sign-up discounts and everyone will pay the same for their membership. I will instead invest in increasing the value of the Club to members.

Deals for students and academics

That lasted long! :)

This 'deal' is the exception. I'm convinced that an option that's more affordable to students makes a lot of sense. I've long struggled with how to make this viable while keeping admin costs low. (Verifying that someone is a student over a long period of time is not a trivial task.)

For a discounted membership a student will need to ask a faculty member to contact us for a unique discount code that can be used multiple times. The faculty will then distribute this code to students or use it themselves for teaching, or getting students excited about electronics. The delivery address for each unique code must be the same university address so that all projects can be shipped together.

The codes will be for a 20% discount and apply for a total of twelve projects. After that the process will need to repeat, or the subscription will go to the normal price. There will be a more detailed set of instructions for this programme in the coming weeks.

Assumed equipment and materials

Many subscription boxes assume that you have basic materials. Our HelloFresh food boxes, for example, assume that we have salt, pepper, oil, and basic cooking equipment. For the Club we'll also assume that people have the basics: a soldering iron, solder wire, small wire-cutter, wire, fine tweezers, a microcontroller-based board for driving some projects, and a USB-to-serial cable for serial programming microcontrollers.

Not all of the above will be necessary for all projects, but these are the essentials for hardware work. We'll have a more complete list ready soon.

These changes will roll out in the next couple of weeks together with a refreshed website. I'm excited about the coming year and about the things that I'm planning on sending your way and I hope that you are too!

All the best,
Saar.

Be part of a Boldport project

Saar Drimer

I've been asked by a gallery in Dublin to design a very large (180x60cm!) circuit board. That is, it needs to look like an 'ordinary' circuit board, just very very large. It will be single sided and will not be functional. We've gone through the preliminaries and have found a manufacturer to work with on making it for us. Now I just need to design the thing! :)

My plan is to stitch together many designs from many sources using PCBmodE. Here's where you may come in. If you have large designs that you can share and that I could freely use, please send them to me.

Whoa. Not so fast. I can't handle all of the formats out there!

Here's the best way to send the designs to me. For each copper, soldermask and silkscreen layer, convert to SVG or PDF using your EDA tool (most should be able to convert to PDF). Black content on white background is best. Label each with 'top', 'bottom', and 'internal-n', where 'n' is the layer number, corresponding to their position.

Send them to saar@boldport.com with the following statement:

I am the owner of the attached work and I authorise its use by Boldport for any purpose. I accept that I will not be able to revoke this authorisation once it is given.

 

In exchange for your help, work, and kindness, we will do our best to include your name as contributor next to the piece when it is displayed and on the work's on-line page.

 

About the Boldport Club's future

Saar Drimer

Update: here are the changes.

Dear Boldport Club members and friends,

Boldport Club is a success. When I started advertising this concept in January 2016 I expected a 100 people to sign up within six months. 170 people joined before I made the first shipment in March. We're now 370 active members and steadily growing by out-pacing the churn.

We have cultivated a very strong community thanks to your participation. I'm delighted that the Club has attracted such interesting and engaging people from all backgrounds and expertise levels; it is rewarding to follow the wide range of topics discussed on Slack and know that those were facilitated through a common appreciation of what the Club offers.

I'm about to ship the tenth project to you. We will then have shipped over 3000 packages in ten months. This fast pace ─ concept, research, design, prototype, production, shipping ─ is the good kind of challenge and I'm happy that we have been able to (mostly) meet our goals. I've been reviewing the answers to our recent questionnaire and learning a lot from them; it's clear that most of you are very happy with what you've been getting out of the Club.

For the first few projects I've had previous work to build on while the more recent projects were completely new. I currently have the prototypes for Project #11 working on my desk, and Project #12's design is almost done. With each project, however, the time margins have been shrinking. What this means in practice is that I'm not spending as much time with each project as I think is necessary to achieve the result I’d like to ship to you. Things have become a bit too rushed. The creative element of the designs I create cannot be crammed into an all-nighter; this sort of work requires 'rest' and time to mature in order to be effective. Recently, I've also noticed that I've not had enough time for important things other than project creation and shipping: project-build content, website revamp, and engaging with our community.

So, all of this to say that there will be a two month pause in deliveries after Project #10. The next project after that will be shipped mid-March 2017. I'm not taking a break. I'll be dedicating some more time to attending to the operational side of running the Club: recruitment, supplier relationships and engagement, assembly and shipping improvements, and dealing with growth. Basically, the things that would make the operation get into a sustainable pace. I will apply all that I’ve learned this past year and consider the changing financial environment. I will, of course, continue to create kits that will be sent to you when deliveries resume.

The general format will not change. It's obviously working. But I’m now considering more subscription options (like a 'pro' as in 'prototype') and lengths (subscribe for a year at a discount), bigger projects that members can buy at the shop, and ways to engage with the community better. I’m going to re-evaluate subscription costs that can accommodate different members ─ such as students ─ better.

There's nothing you need to do at this point. I'll sort out your accounts so that you only pay for what you get. If you decide to cancel the subscription during this time and would like a refund for the kits you've paid for that are delayed, just email me. I do hope, however, that you'll stay with us. New members will still be able to sign up during this ‘shipping pause’ period.

Our community on Slack will remain as active as usual and you're welcome to discuss this message on the #meta channel. If you'd like to collaborate on a project or have some ideas, now would be a good time to get in touch and start making plans. Also, if you’d like to collaborate on, or contribute to, some aspects of the Club ─ newsletter, curation of member-generated content, graphics and design, etc. ─ I’d love to hear from you.

I’m grateful to you all for making Boldport Club what it is. I’ve been working full-time on the concept of ‘beautiful and functional’ circuits for several years now, and only with the success of the Club I can be finally confident that I will be able to continue doing this work for a living, work that I thoroughly enjoy. Thanks for that.

All the best,
Saar.

 

Component side, solder side

Saar Drimer

The first board with the solder polarity symbol

Anyone who's soldered even (or especially!) for a short while will recall the sinking feeling of soldering a component on the wrong side of the board. It's usually not a disaster, but it is annoying to have to deal with the re-work when you're excited with getting on with building the thing to completion.

Several people soldered the components on the wrong side while assembling this board

For stylistic reasons, Boldport Club Project #1, the Pease, confusingly had the component symbols on the back of the board, while the components actually needed to be soldered from the top side. Even though pin-1 markings for the IC (the most crucial component in this context) were there to avoid the ambiguity, many — particularly experienced engineers who make assumptions based on prior experience — soldered the components on the wrong side.

This is a design — not a user — issue that needs addressing. While there's only so far a designer can go in order to prevent users from making mistakes, helping them with effective but unobtrusive cues greatly helps attain a better overall experience. This is a primary goal in my work.

I thought for a while how to elegantly convey the soldering 'polarity', as I did not want to do the obvious: explicitly writing 'solder side' and 'component side'.  It's ugly, and takes away attention from other, more important, visual features on the board.

I thought that a symbol could work well and here's what I came up with

and it is first used on the TAP board, an upcoming Boldport Club project.

Symbol on the component side

Symbol on the solder side

Symbol on the solder side

The problem with new symbols is that those who are meant to pay attention to them need to know what they're looking at, or for. For that, there's this blog post, and I do intend on including a little note to draw the attention of future project recipients.

The symbol files are at our GitHub repo and are licensed under the Creative Commons Zero.

Boldport Club Project #2 — the tiny 'engineer superhero' emergency kit, second edition

Saar Drimer

This started it all, a PCB business card.

It all started when in search for a unique design twist almost three years ago I experimented with embedding through-hole components inside of the PCB itself. Researching this, I found that other than the slots that sometimes cost extra, there's nothing preventing me from achieving this with a standard manufacturing process. I then made the "engineer's emergency business card", which got a very positive response [Hackaday | HackerNews].

The first edition kit

The first edition kit

This response led me to create my first ever kit, "the tiny 'engineer superhero' emergency kit, first edition", spiced up with a tale of where an engineer might use it

It's meant to be an engineer's emergency kit. When all hope is lost, the MacGuyver engineer could snap out one of the components and save the day. Recall the countless times you desperately needed a 1 KOhm resistor to fix an amplifier at a party, only to see the person you were trying to impress slip away with an OCaml programmer? Never again with this little kit.

 

It's a functional circuit. When you apply voltage the LED turns on, and the solder wire bit is part of this circuit.

Another new 'thing' was gently laser etching a compressed cellulose sponge so that when wet expands to fit the tin the kit arrives in and can be used to clean a soldering iron as one is soldering.

This kit is special because — other than the in-circuit components, visuals, and sponge — it's the kit through which I learned a lot about kitting and selling kits. I felt that it would be great to send members of the Boldport Club the second edition of this kit, and in this way share this first experience that eventually led me to start the Club.

This 'second edition' comes in a black tin can and has new two-tone visuals. Next week I'll be sending these kits to Club members, and all of those who joined the Club by the cut-off date of April 9th will receive a second one as a gift for their support! Sign up here.

The second edition has a two-tone visuals, using soldermask at places.

The sponges for this kit were supplied by our friends at Oomlout — who are also enthusiastic members and supporters of the Boldport Club. The PCBs were manufactured by Eurocircuits. And, as usual, the design is open source hardware, and is available at our GitHub repository. A full album of the kit is here.

Could this little kit save your career?!

Boldport Club project #1 — make sure one is yours!

Saar Drimer

The Boldport Club — a monthly subscription to electronics projects — has been very well received. We now have over 85 members, even before we shipped our first project! We're getting ready for delivering our first project to members: a tribute to Bob Pease and an electronics discovery kit based on his LM331 chip.

An engineer and an artist?!

The famous quote from Robert Allen Pease

Bob Pease was an analogue design expert and technical writer of legendary status. He had the unique ability to communicate very technical topics in a relatable style, character, and authority, and thus becoming an educator to generations of engineers. One of Pease's most memorable sayings was 'My favorite programming language is... solder', which captures so much of our love for electronics and creating things with our minds and hands.

The original 'Pease'. I made only50 and mostly given them away...

A couple of years ago, I designed a tribute to Pease, which was one of the first boards that I've created with PCBmodE. I've not sold the board widely — I only made 50 and most of them I gave away — but it was always a board that got attention. When I considered which of my designs should be the first to be sent to Boldport Club members, it had to be this one.

Now updated to a 'second edition', the board is based around Pease's LM331, a voltage to frequency converter chip. The circuit on the board is a light intensity to frequency converter, exactly as shown in Figure 20 of the datasheet. (There's an extra bit for flashing an LED with the output.)

The schematic for the circuit is drawn on the back of the board for easy reference, and either through-hole or surface-mount components can be used (the kit only contains through-hole components, though).

 

The contents of the kit. Each kit comes with two instances of the PCB.

It's a 'discovery kit' since you should figure out how to tweak the values of the components to do different things. You may need to use different components, and you're likely want to consult the datasheet for how the chip works. Maybe even connect it to a scope! Power can be applied through the USB connector or through the holes on the other side. There's even a handy ruler, and a keyring if you want to carry the board with you.

As usual, this board is open source hardware, and the design files for both the PCB and package are here. The full album for this kit is here. And here's a video of the board in operation

So here's the deal: we're shipping this project to members of the Boldport Club at the beginning of March. If you're not a member by then you won't get this project, as we don't repeat projects or send new members old projects (members can still buy old stock while it lasts, though). We're building a limited amount of this special project, so we suggest that you hurry :)

News from the Boldport front

Saar Drimer

A quick update.

Boldport Club accepts memberships

bc-large.png

After a few months of planning, we've opened the Boldport Club for people to join as members. For £49 you'll get three projects of our making; you know, the good stuff that we've been making for a while. We're very excited about the potential of the Club, and we hope that you'll join us, along with your friends and relatives ;)

New website

Towards the end of November we released a new version of our website at http://boldport.com. We've got a new logo, and a better message. Please explore the website, and send anyone who could use 'electronics craftsmanship' our way.

PCBmodE version 4.0

PCBmodE is our own (open source software) circuit design tool with which we design all of our boards. Over the past few months we've implemented new features — most notably, support for multiple layers — and improved usability. Several boards at the repository are compatible with the new version and are a great place to start with the software.

FOSDEM presentations

FOSDEM (Free and Open Source Software Developers' European Meeting) is a large, free, gathering for open source software developers, happening next weekend in Brussels. I'll be speaking at the eda-devroom twice; once about PCBmodE and another about the future of EDA. If you'll be at FOSDEM, make sure to let me know and we'll arrange to meet.

Finally, the office move

Our place off of Borough High Street was great, but we needed more space. After a few weeks of searching, I've found what I think will be a great place to work from. It's at the Arch Collective, along-side a laser-cutting and model-making businesses. We're moving in tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to working at the new space. Feel free to come by and say hello!

 

Haute circuits

Saar Drimer

This one didn't make it to the printed magazine. Credit: Marie Claire, Mitch Feinberg

It was a privilege and a pleasure to work with Mitch Feinberg, an accomplished still-life photographer with a long record of amazing work. Marie Claire US magazine commissioned photographs of luxury jewellery — Tiffany, Chopard, Bulgari, Cartier, Yurman, and Harry Winston — from Mitch.

Mitch conceived the idea of having large bespoke circuitboard designs as the backdrop for the jewellery, and a Web search led him to Boldport and me. It was serendipitous; the old Boldport website was not explicit about us doing this kind of work, but Mitch was acute at sensing that this is the exact kind of work I wanted to attract! Our custom tool, PCBmodE, allows us to achieve the visuals and designs like no other tool can, and we were just the right company for the job.

The work appears in the December 2015 issue of Marie Claire US

The six photographs below are the ones taken by Mitch and belong to himself and Marie Claire magazine. They cannot be used without their permission. Unfortunately, the Bulgari piece — my personal favourite! — did not make it to print.

Cartier. Credit: Marie Claire, Mitch Feinberg

Yurman. Credit: Marie Claire, Mitch Feinberg

Chopard. Credit: Marie Claire, Mitch Feinberg

Tiffany. Credit: Marie Claire, Mitch Feinberg

Bulgari. Credit: Marie Claire, Mitch Feinberg

Harry Winston. Credit: Marie Claire, Mitch Feinberg

Harry Winston. Credit: Marie Claire, Mitch Feinberg

Below are photographs that I took of the boards and of the magazine. Please ask for permission before use elsewhere. A full gallery of images is here.

The circuitboard designs were inspired by the jewellery piece that would be placed on them. It was an enjoyable creative process. Finally, some of the boards have LEDs. These are SMD LEDs that poke through a hole in the board. Their intensity is controlled by a potentiometer and power is supplied via a microUSB port.

And finally, my credit! :)

EDIT: A couple of my prototype sketches

Let's talk about '3D printed' circuit boards

Saar Drimer

If you haven't yet used a consumer-grade desktop '3D printer' you might still be under the illusion that they are going to 'change the world' as the hype used to promise. Someone once remarked to me about the dynamics of a hackerspace, "they come for the 3D printer but stay for the laser cutter". I certainly did, after fighting with the 3D printer that produced inconsistent, and poor, results, no matter how much effort I put into it. The next time I wanted the wonder of 3D printers I designed a model with OpenSCAD and sent it off to Shapeways and got my item in three different materials a week later. I saved a ton of faffing time, and money, that way. Then, if I wanted twenty, they would be the same quality and shape, and someone will be there to answer if they are not.

So on the heels of that hype arrived a slew of '3D' desktop circuit boards printers — Voxel8, Argentum, and Voltera to name some — which promise the same but for circuitry. The advantages, they say, are faster iteration of prototypes, extended material possibilities, and mechanical construction that isn't otherwise available.

It's easy and natural to get excited about these prospects. But there is only one case I can think of that a consumer-grade '3D' circuit printer justifies its cost: a hackerspace. Other than there, these machines are near useless.

How does a circuit bring-up work? We research the technologies and ICs that we may use. We'll read the datasheets and order evaluation and development kits to play with. If the circuit is simple we'll wire it up with a breadboard, cables, or an Arduino. There's no need for a custom circuit board at this stage. If the circuit is more complex, we'll need a board that can meet our needs -- this may be a 2-or-more-layer board with plated vias or a controlled impedance board with 0.5mm pitch devices. Crucially — and this is what those who promote these devices fail to mention — we want the prototype boards to be the same technology that your production unit. Otherwise, we may be doubling our work and spend more money.

"But you'll have to wait a week for the board to arrive!" It's called 'planning'. If an engineer cannot plan their project to fill their time between sending the boards out and waiting for them to arrive, then something's already wrong. There is so much more to do in a project to fill that time up. Save the two grand you'll spend on a printer you'd use twice for a 'quick-turn emergency fund'. Besides, PCB manufacturers are not sitting idle in the face of demand for quicker turns; most offer a day turn, and that should be good enough for prototypes in a bind. Or, find a local PCB manufacturer and save yourself some shipping time and money.

As for materials, I personally have worked with 'exotic' circuit materials that are production ready and well characterised. Even if I could produce novelty items with one of those printers that would look good on Twitter, how would I scale? How would I make them robust? I couldn't unless I re-do it with a different technology and have to go through a new learning process. As for new 'paradigm changing' constructions, I still haven't seen an example for this that isn't contrived. 

In conclusion I'll say that these consumer-grade desktop circuit printers could have a loving home at hackerspaces for educational and fun one-off projects. But please don't buy into the hype that they are all that useful elsewhere.

The buggy

Saar Drimer

A fine specimen

A fine specimen

I was asked to design a cheap and fun badge for the hardwear.io hardware security conference in The Hague. They wanted it in the theme of a ladybird (or ladybug, depending on where you read this from). As I do, I first sketch out a concepts that I think could work.

A concept sketch of the 'buggy'

A concept sketch of the 'buggy'

You'd use two current-limiting resistors per LED as legs, rolled up wire or component leads as antennae, and ordinary or blinking 3/5/10mm LEDs for show. The back side has a CR2032 battery holder for power. The hardwear.io folks have manufactured the badges and my understanding is that they were well received.

I adapted the design for my own, and manufactured a few as well.

There are two 'solder-blob' jumpers that allow powering the buggy through the eyes (instead of from the battery, never both), which can also function as holes for attaching to a lanyard or worn as a necklace ;)

A full photo-shoot of the 'buggy' is here.

Working towards making this board into a kit, I've recently added an ON/OFF switch and made a few visual changes. Here's how the most recent version looks like in PCBmodE/Inkscape

As usual, this board is open source hardware. Get the latest version of the board at the Boldport repo.

Until next time, 'buggy' says farewell

Jumping the Skarp

Saar Drimer

The 'Skarp Lazer Razor' has so far raised over $3.5 million on Kickstarter and still has twelve days to go. Its creators, the 'Skarpers', make claims about the development of a laser-based 'razor' that gives an irritation-free shave better and faster than a traditional razor; it's also, they claim, more environment friendly. To achieve the claimed properties of the product its creators must have overcome significant challenges in optics, miniaturisation, eye and skin safety, power, usability, etc.

The extraordinary claims made by the creators of Skarp are not backed by the extraordinary evidence they, and backers, deserve. What's presented to us as proof is a rendered animation, 3D printed handles, and a 'demo' that only raises more questions and doubt about the current state of the product

From all that I've seen so far the Skarpers have created a proof-of-concept that's equivalent -- in context of the challenges -- to wiring something on a breadboard. Oh, and they've obviously worked very hard on those lovely 3D printed handles!

To the criticism of technical feasibility, the Skarpers have argued that backers should rely on their and their advisors' reputation and background -- after all they are "men of science". For the lack of technical transparency, the Skarpers claim that they would lose their "advantage" if they reveal any further details.

In a critical view, neither of these arguments matter. Experts can be wrong or misled into endorsement and founders are often blind to obvious problems, and prone to wishful thinking. If there's concerns about intellectual property, they should have waited until they are covered, or found a way to demo without revealing too much. I also think that if one is sitting on such a proven, patent protected, revolution in technology, Kickstarter is an odd place to pander for cash in the first instance.

The arguments the Skarpers use here are, however, very effective as they both hide the project's real state and sound convincing to an non-critical audience.

The odd 18,000 backers are clearly non-critical. You don't need to be a laser engineer to know that there's an extreme, at best, wishful thinking here -- a delivery of such a complex product in six months (March 2016) is delusional. It cannot happen and it will not happen. This is particularly bothersome when the Skarpers say that

Due to the size of the micro components involved, there will be un-known levels of fine tuning required for automated production in high volume. However we have taken this into consideration for our projected delivery of March 2016.

Similarly when ramping up delivery of key components, quality control could become a challenge & is of high priority to us.

Morgan Gustavsson & his team have decades of experience with bringing new technologies, cosmetic & medical products to market successfully.

So they are either competent but intentionally misleading or they're incompetent. Either way it's a sure sign to walk away. I wasn't swayed by looking at the Skarpers' LinkedIn profiles either.

Reality demonstrated clearly that the majority of backers don't care about any of it. They want this fantasy product even if they never get it. Some are quite OK with that -- read the comments. So if the lottery is a tax on those poor at math, then Kickstarter is a tax on people who can't be bothered by the details. What's the harm?

The harm is for the rest of us! When this project fails to deliver -- at all or the Skarpers send out a brittle wire on a fancy handle that lasts three seconds -- it's us, the hardware developers that care about our craft, that ultimately pay the price. We'll be collectively and proverbially shat upon by the same "tech" media that blindly gave wind to that project. We'll be perceived as 'those engineers' who over-promise and under-deliver. This infuriates me.

We need to accept that Kickstarter has evolved into a lucrative scamming platform: a mechanism designed for little accountability and enforcement filled with a gullible audience with disposable income. Kickstarter is now damaging the reputation of 'hardware' far more than any of the good that it might have done in the past. I think that we've reached peak-Kickstarter,  the point where the 'classic' crowdfunding funding model has 'jumped the Skarp', in a similar way that Fonzie jumped the shark for TV.

(Amusingly, I still hold some hope that this is a brilliantly executed social experiment, though I would find it hard to believe that it passed an ethical review board.)

The license is the license

Saar Drimer

In January 2014 I explained why I wouldn't be using the Open Source Hardware Logo on my boards in the future. Since then, unless a client wanted it on there, I ditched it completely.

If I recall, I got the impression at the time that people thought that I was a crank for having that opinion, but in light of the recent "Open Source Hardware Certification" initiative by the Open Source Hardware Association, I know that I was right to distance myself from being associated with that brand.

I feel that the "certification" proposal is misguided and pointless on many levels, and I find it hard to reconcile how otherwise well-meaning people have not realised this and scrapped the notion at conception.

Let's have a look. The proposal lists its primary goals

Make it easier for the public to identify open source hardware.

I assume that the 'public' are those who are not within the small community of people who already know how to check if a product is genuinely open source. I think that the OSHWA fails to appreciate two things here. Firstly, that the 'public' doesn't really care; it's nearly always the vocal voices within the OSHW community who complain -- rightfully on most accounts -- about the mislabelling and abuse of their view of OSHW. Secondly, that it is nearly impossible to educate the 'public' for brand awareness without massive amounts of money, particularly given the first point.

So, ultimately, there's no demand and no means for "certification".

Expand the reach of open hardware by making it easier for newer members to join the open source hardware community.

This should be obvious, but you join the community simply by creating open-source hardware, not by being "certified" by self-proclaimed guardians of the practice, OSHWA or whoever else. I can't see any of this making it 'easier' anyway, quite the opposite -- any practical person would just not bother.

Since the basis of this initiative is flawed, the rest of the arguments in the proposal fall apart. But the OSHWA takes it a step further by assuming the role of an OSHW enforcer.

Users will self-certify compliance in order to use the certification logos. In doing so, they will submit to oversight and enforcement by OSHWA.

(This sound more like checking into a Big-Brother establishment for life than to the luxury beach hotel this concept is made out to seem.)

And,

Bringing the alleged failure to comply to the attention of the responsible party and giving the responsible party an opportunity to respond and/or correct
A second attempt to contact the responsible party to structure a path towards compliance
Public listing of the non-compliant project or product on the OSHWA website
Monthly fines not to exceed $500 per month
Monthly fines not to exceed $1,000 per month
Monthly fines not to exceed $10,000 per month

The expectation is that for apparently little practical benefit one would voluntarily submit to fines being levied on them if someone decided that they do not comply with their rules. Again, there are two problems here. Firstly, no reasonable person would accept these terms without a significant benefit (USB and BTLE certification, for example, actually provides a crucial technology -- there are no parallels here). Secondly, there is no practical way to enforce these fines worldwide. So the scheme will either fail because no one would buy into it, or fail because there will be no way to prevent abuse of the brand.

There's no doubt in my mind that the people behind these ideas mean well.  I feel, however, that the motivation is less to do with concern for the 'community' and 'public' and more to do with reconciling the individual enthusiasm for open source hardware with the reality of people <del>benefiting</del> profiting commercially from your own work, which was given away gratis. It's a rotten feeling when that happens, but that's part of the deal. The licence is the license. If the realities of the license chosen are unbearable, then a different license should be used, or a different business/benefit-model be used. One can't both claim OSHW and then be picky about how it's being used.

OK, so I've let off some steam. Here's what I recommend for the OSHWA to actually do with the energy and enthusiasm they have after scrapping this certification idea. Create a place where the 'public' and 'community' can be easily educated about the signs of a genuine OSHW project, and its benefits. Provide a service for crowdfunding platforms and companies -- maybe even charge a fee -- for producing a report on products' 'openness'. Take the role of educators and enablers -- rather than be the 'enforcers' of 'compliance' violations by 'bad actors' -- and gain authority that way instead.

Case study -- the 'seahorse'

Saar Drimer

Earlier this year Jeremy Bennett of Embecosm asked me to design a follow-up to the 'cuttlefish' board. This is what Jeremy was looking for

  • Bare-bones Arduino compatible; based on the Shrimp
  • Battery powered
  • Wearable
  • Easy to solder
  • Gender neutral
  • Interactive and fun
  • Cheap
The 'cuttlefish' is the predecessor of the 'seahorse'. More images here.

The 'cuttlefish' is the predecessor of the 'seahorse'. More images here.

Jeremy intended for the board to be used to teach children and teenagers how to solder, and in doing so get them interested in electronics, hardware, software, and, eventually, optimising compilers. (This is a joke -- Jeremy's Embecosm is a leader in compiler optimisation.)

One is able to teach soldering on a single-sided board in a baggy from Maplin, but that won't be too engaging. There has to be more, something memorable and perhaps something familiar. It also has to be somewhat useful and playful so that it won't be thrown in a drawer and quickly forgotten.

First concept sketches

First concept sketches

My first set of concept designs resembled aliens and game-controllers -- engaging and familiar. Fairly early on I decided to use infrared transmit and receive as the primary interaction mechanism. This served two of the goals: it's cheap and can be easily explained using simple diagrams. Kids feel very comfortable with the concept of 'wireless' and so IR is one of the simplest ways to explain one of the many ways of 'wireless' communication. It is also relatively easy to follow code that controls the IR transmit and receive for those who want to dig in deeper. Generally, it's important to have people get a sense of achievement very early on, or they quickly lose interest.

Many ideas from this concept went on to the final design

Many ideas from this concept went on to the final design

I presented these concepts to Jeremy and we eventually decided that it's best to continue the ocean-themed designs (Shrimp, cuttlefish, etc.) I was tasked to find an ocean creature that has the right cartoonish shape to accommodate the physical requirements -- coin-cell battery and the long DIP package of the microntroller. After lots of image searches, I arrived to this concept design

The first concept sketch of the 'seahorse' that resembles its final form

The first concept sketch of the 'seahorse' that resembles its final form

Below is the final design as it looks in Inkscape after being designed with PCBmodE, our custom open-source PCB design software.

250 of these lovely boards arrived yesterday, and were manufactured by Eurocircuits

The two small break-out boards house an LED and resistor in series, each. Those can be regular or IR LEDs, and the idea is for them to be used for playing with others, creating unique IR transmit patterns and communicating with other boards that are around in line-of-sight.

There are three holes for attaching the board to a garment or something else. All the micro's pins are broken out to headers so that several other 'peripherals' can be attached to the board.

Placing the battery holder on the top allows the circuit board to be flat on the bottom and more convenient as a 'wearable'. Using my solder-dome technique, you can get rid of those pointy solder joints that would stick to clothing.

Finishing the solder points as domes make the board more comfortable to handle and it won't rip up or get stuck to clothing

Finishing the solder points as domes make the board more comfortable to handle and it won't rip up or get stuck to clothing

In terms of the circuit design, there were a few challenges. The board was to be programmed using a 6-pin serial adaptor, which can supply 5V to the board. Since the 'seahorse' is normally battery-powered, this is problematic -- you don't ever want to have both power rails be connected at the same time. An additional problem was that a coin cell only provides 3V, not high enough for running the ATmega328 at 16MHz, which is the Arduino standard.

For cost reasons we chose to use two thin CR2016 stacked into a CR2032 battery holder. This gives us 6V, which we dropped to ~5V using a diode -- a component that was already in the design elsewhere. The 5V from the programmer is 'jumperable' using a fishy solder-blob jumper.

The solder-blob jumper is the on top right; it connects the programmer's 5V to the power plain, and assumes no battery is connected!

The solder-blob jumper is the on top right; it connects the programmer's 5V to the power plain, and assumes no battery is connected!

The current capacity of the CR2016 isn't that high, and the board won't run too long on two of them -- particularly with the LEDs on -- but we concluded that it's 'good enough'. A possible alternative is to use a battery holder that can house two CR2032 batteries.

All the headers' holes are staggered, so that pin headers can be plugged and unplugged without soldering them to the board. This is particularly convenient for programming, so you don't need to have the header there during normal operation. The holes can be used for attaching conductive thread, although care must be taken not to short the contacts -- again, this was a usability/functionality compromise -- other 'wearables', like the Lilypad, have large separated pads to avoid this problem.

This is an open source hardware design, and the design files are on our GitHub repo. A photo album for the board is here.

Defining architecture

Saar Drimer

Other than discussing hardware product-design, I found myself proposing to prospective clients an additional (or alternative) way for working together. This turned out to be quite popular.

At the time of contact, clients are usually looking for someone to realise their ideas, seek authoritative advice and guidance, or take their prototypes to the 'next level'. It's at that moment in the project where an 'architecture definition' is a crucial document to have, and I offer to help them create it.

I first ask clients to tell me what they want to achieve. I explicitly ask them to leave out how they think it could be achieved since that is -- potentially and hopefully -- my job. That's what the architecture definition document starts out with. It sets the tone without burdening the imagination with technicalities, freeing us to be creative with solutions. It's the framing shot.

Source: http://www.digititles.com/movies/django-unchained-2012/photos/tarantino-framing-a-shot

Source: http://www.digititles.com/movies/django-unchained-2012/photos/tarantino-framing-a-shot

We then work on an architectural diagram that encapsulates the interaction of all components of the system at a high-level. We also define all entities, along with their capabilities, purpose, and needs. Confusingly, we want to be specific and generic at the same time. For example, we might not know whether we'll use ZigBee or Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) at this point, so we might call that communication channel 'short range channel' or 'low power channel' -- this allows us to be flexible later on where we actually spec that comms channel. We may not know if the device is battery- or USB-powered, so we'll just say 'power source'.

This part of the document is important since here we give the reader -- and ourselves -- an overview of the system to come back to as a reference. This bit occasionally changes as the document fleshes out, but not by too much -- this is the foundation of the project, and changes here have a cascading impact on the rest of the document.

The next phase is dynamic and interactive. Here we spell out the possible ways for achieving the goals and functionality of the project. We might consider, for example, GSM as a communication channel, but indicate that this has power and connectivity implications. We may consider BTLE but note that bandwidth is very limited. We'll also discuss user-interface elements, such as the merits of a mechanical push-button versus a capacitive touch solution. We'll point out the merits of using a pre-packaged module compared to a complete OEM solution compared to the costs of a custom PCB. And what about certification?

This section changes a lot in the course of writing the document: what used to be an option may be stricken out because of a limitation, or cost. Or, a few positive considerations may tip over a solution to be the one that's the favourite. It's typical to have quite a few ping-pong rounds of edits between us and the client for this section.

In the process, many questions that must be -- at the least -- addressed invariably surface. These questions can be pretty tough for the client to answer. How do you choose, for example, between a non-replaceable rechargeable Li-Ion battery in an ultrasonically sealed case versus two replaceable AA batteries with their associated complexities of usability and an opening in the casework. We don't have to have the answers, but at least the questions and considerations are there. It can be overwhelming, but it's definitely good to have given these considerations a thought before the product has already been mostly designed!

At the the end we get a thought-out document that teased out a lot of detail. The client is now armed with a document that can be shown to an investor or design consultancy for a quotation. It empowers the client in future interactions about their product and allows the other party to quickly understand the project's goals and requirements.

most importantly, we found that the investment of time early on to create such a document saves a much more time later on the project!

Now, why would you hire Boldport for this job?

We bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the process, and are able to advise and contribute way beyond the technical details. Other than experience in many technologies -- FPGAs, microcontrollers, BTLE, web, software development, manufacturing -- we're competent at advising on the security and privacy implications of your product. In authoring the architecture definition we also, of course, factor in cost, manufacturability, and usability considerations.

We work as if we're not the ones who are going to design the system -- and we may well not be. What you end up getting is different compared to what you'll get in a 'project proposal' from other consultancies, where they are naturally biased towards the solutions that they are already most familiar with. Those proposed technologies may not be the best for your product! We'll give you a document that you can take to these consultancies and have them justify why their solution may be better, instead of just taking their recommendations at face value.

Finally, we strive to give you value for your money. It's a great way to get to know us and how we work towards the success of your product. Writing a document like I described above typically takesone to three days. You'll get the document, of course, but also the benefit of knowing if we're the right choice for continuing to design your product. Also, be certain that if we feel that we do not have the expertise for completing your project in the best way possible, we'll tell you.

Finally, here's what Alex Nicholson from Sustainable Venture Development Partners said about a recent architecture definition project we've completed together

We engaged Boldport to support us with product development and to help us develop a technical specification. I was struck most by the creativity that went into the production of the specification, with nothing taken for granted. This, combined with punctuality in its delivery, made it a rewarding experience to work with Boldport. I hope to continue working with them in the future.

There are more testimonials here.

Please do get in touch if you think that an 'architecture definition document' could be useful to you.

Open Bidouille Camp badge

Saar Drimer

The design's view from within Inkscape/PCBmodE

The design's view from within Inkscape/PCBmodE

The good folk of Open Bidouille Camp reached out to me a few months ago and asked if I could design a small badge for their workshops, as a tool for teaching people how to solder. As I usually do, I asked for a logo or some other material that I could use for inspiration as a starting point for a concept.

The OBC logo

The OBC logo

This is a two-tone design (white and light-blue above) on a dark background. That could be easily translated to a circuit-board. The OBC people preferred black soldermask, so that was a given design choice.

I decided to leave as much as I can as it is and to use the hexagons as a common theme: the outline (of course), LED pads, and battery holder pads.

Front of the badge

Front of the badge

Back of the badge -- the three large pads are for a battery holder

Back of the badge -- the three large pads are for a battery holder

But there's a more ominous way to assemble the board!

You might have been wondering why I created the crossbones gap in soldermask on the bottom side of the board. Scroll down. Carefully ;)

Now, with the battery holder facing down, we solder the LEDs and resistors on the bottom of the board.

Soldering the components on the bottom side of the board

Soldering the components on the bottom side of the board

Here's what it looks like from the front. Pretty tame.

WHOA. He's out to get you! HAR HAR.

This was a fun project, and shows what can be achieved with just a few components and a bit of thought into the design.

All our boards are designed using PCBmodE, an open source software we developed to create 'beautifully functional circuits' such as this OBC badge. The design itself is open source hardware, and can be found at Boldport's Github repository.

If you need a beautifully functional circuit designed, that's our speciality, so get in touch!