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Sailing to production

"Harrison's Chronometer H5" by Racklever at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here. Original uploader was Racklever at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harrison%27s_Chronometer_H5.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Harrison%27s_Chronometer_H5.JPG

"Harrison's Chronometer H5" by Racklever at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here. Original uploader was Racklever at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harrison%27s_Chronometer_H5.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Harrison%27s_Chronometer_H5.JPG

In 1714, the British took a very contemporary approach to solving the long-standing 'longitude problem' by offering a lucrative prize, through an Act of Parliament and administered by a special Board. Whilst the goal was worthy, the criteria for winning was not defined well enough to eliminate the influence of opinion, egos, and politics from a competition that was predominately about a scientific achievement.

John Harisson, a clockmaker and a prime contender for the prize, dedicated years to the problem. In a series of watches, each smaller and better than its predecessors, he pretty much reached the goals of the contest with the 'H4'. The Board, however, realised that a working 'prototype' isn't quite achieving the spirit of the prize -- a replicable, open, and, most importantly, scalable solution to the problem. Harisson was denied the prize despite meeting its technical criteria. Reluctantly, Harisson facilitated the replication by other watchmakers.

Harisson, now quite old, continued to work on H5, and being frustrated with the Board, went directly to the King to test the new device. The King was pleased and leaned on the Board; Harisson finally got a big chunk of money, but not the prize itself, or been officially the 'winner'.

That's a short summary of events, glossing over some details for brevity.

Taking something 'to production' -- yes, cue pretty much all hardware ukulele-themed Kickstarter campaigns -- is still a struggle 300 years on. Firstly, manufacturing something at scale requires very different skills than those required for prototyping. Secondly, prototyping can be very misleading because of how easy it is these days. This is why so many hardware crowdfunding campaigns fail to deliver, even if they are aware of the issues ahead.

Harisson was driven by finding a solution to a burning problem, not by manufacturing it at scale. He was probably naive about keeping the inner-workings a secret whilst still getting 'funding', although in some respects he was treated unfairly by the Board. Taking it 'to production' should probably have been a different prize altogether, as it required different skills than those possessed by a technical innovator.

Today, however, there should be no excuses. When you go Kickstartering and over-promise 5,000 working units to 3,000 people, you better be damn prepared, and deliver! This is one of the wrongs we're done by Kickstarter and their relatives. We're creating a development culture that's unprepared, sloppy, and ultimately disappointing. This doesn't affect only those who don't deliver, it rubs off on all of us in hardware development, who are trying to go about it more reasonably and realistically. It's hard as it is.

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Circuit love! A Valentine's Day special

circuitlove-yellow-top.png

I've asked Eurocircuits -- who I've often used to make my circuits for the past couple of years -- if we could collaborate on experimenting with new techniques for PCB manufacturing. To my delight, Luc, Dirk, and their manufacturing team were very welcoming and excited about the idea and were great at producing samples. Their PCB manufacturing expertise is instrumental to the making of boards that are unique but that are also mass-manufacturable and affordable. This is our first experiment.

For a long time now, I've been wanting to create boards that have more than just a single soldermask colour. There is no technical reason that this cannot be done -- it's only a matter of fab willingness, and, of course, cost. The advantage of using soldermask over silkscreen, by the way, is twofold: better resolution, and better registration. (There's also no reason why multiple silkscreen colours can't be done.) Eurocircuits have been at the forefront of innovating in PCB ordering, and have also been offering clients the ability to add graphics to PCBs with their PCB PIXture feature. They add the graphics with soldermask, so they are familiar with a multi-pass soldermask process.

Of course I designed the circuit using our own PCBmodE. The circuit has five warm white LEDs on the bottom side of the board, and an SMD micro-USB connector footprint in the centre of each edge. The idea is that one could choose where to place the USB connector according to the intended use of the board. If it hangs on a wall, it would make sense to populate the connector on the bottom. If it's used as a coaster, side or top placement makes sense. When powered, the light from the LEDs reflects off the surface the board is on and shines through the FR4, gaps in copper, and soldermask.

The visual design is rather arbitrary, but is meant to create engaging structures and also see how well superimposed soldermask layers look like -- then we could have three colours!

OK, enough with the words!

The first variant is 'yellow'. It has black and white soldermask on the top and bottom with yellow silkscreen added on the top.

The second variant is 'red'. This one has white, black, and red soldermask (no silkscreen on the top) with an ENIG finish.

The sharp-eyed would have noticed that the black and white colours are 'dotted' -- this is the technique that Eurocircuits use for PIXture. The main difference from 'yellow', however, is the lack of copper around the text, so light goes through nearly the entire board. This lets the two blue-ish soldermask colours on the back create a very neat and colourful effect.

Which variant if your favourite?

To enclose the board, I've used the same 3mm acrylic pieces -- lovingly made by oomlaut -- that I use for the 'superhero' plaque, but with added spacers for the LEDs and USB connectors. If this plaque becomes a 'thing', an opaque acrylic shim may be a good addition to block the light from seeping through the sides.

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Naturally, we love circuits at Boldport and Eurocircuits; this Valentine's Day we really made an effort to show it ;)

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Comments on RaspberryPi 2's 'Xenon Death Flash'

It turns out that a component on the new Raspberry Pi 2 is sensitive to high energy beams of a certain spectrum. This causes the RPi to 'hang' and require a hard reset -- here's an official response to the so-called "Xenon Death Flash" failure.

This failure mode is typically called a 'soft error', where no permanent damage is caused and the device will continue operating normally after a reset or a power-cycle. The culprit IC seems to be a switching regulator (U16 on the RPi) that supplies the main processor; the exact failure mechanism isn't clear yet, however. The fix is easy, just cover U16.

In the context of the RPi, this is a non-issue. A robust solution for this type of errors is within the realm of military-, space-, and medical-grade kit, where 'single event upsets' and soft errors are dealt with triple-modular redundancy and radiation hardening. The RPi, I'm certain, comes with a warning that it is not meant for such applications. Regardless, if you're expecting a beyond reasonable robustness from a $35 device that's optimised for cost, you're mad.

This failure is a humble reminder that hardware development is full of surprises. No matter how much you think about all the possible things that could go wrong, there will always be something unexpected that you will lose sleep over (either through worrying about it, and/or all-nighters debugging/fixing a problem so not to delay a launch). If you have a hardware engineer nearby, give them a hug!

There's no way that the RPi engineers could have seen this coming -- shout-out to James, one of the most talented engineers I know -- it's only come to light since the RPi is such a popular product, exposed by default, and people are obsessed with taking photos of it. Now, that's interesting! If it wasn't for the RPi, we might have never been aware of this potential issue. At Boldport, where we design circuits that are meant to be exposed, this is a highly valuable piece of information. In fact, I can dream up scenarios where this can be used as a clever feature! ;)

 

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A farewell to EDA

Credit: ITV

Credit: ITV

EDA is dead, and we're to blame.

EDA is dead. It's been dying for about 20 years now. Big EDA have given up on innovation and the 99% of their users that cannot buy "platinum" support. Their software is an out-dated patchwork that's occasionally given a botox injection in the form of a new set of Windows icons. Their interfaces look like a Dreamliner cockpit bolted onto a DC-10 frame. New features are underwhelming, few, and do not address real problems, like source-control, inefficient design processes, and usability.

The thing is that despite the talented engineers working on these tools, culturally and structurally, Big EDA are not capable of innovation, and we should stop expecting them to.

'Cloud' EDA tools such as Upverter, circuits.io and others are disappointing in that they have resisted the urge to innovate. Interfaces are largely the same as their desktop counterparts and the design process is the same. But it's in the 'cloud' and 'social', neither of which are exactly what we're craving. Sadly, these tools are engineered to get aquihired by Big EDA, not to get us to perform our work more effectively, or for disruptting our outmoded industry.

Open source EDA is nearly non-existent due to the tight grip of Big EDA. The KiCAD project, for example, admirable as it is, suffers from typical community-based development issues and its 'old' core. I wouldn't be surprised -- I don't keep track --  if most of the current work is dealing with historical artefacts and personalities, instead of accepting the fact that the software needs a reboot, a natural occurrence in any software development, and one that should be much more manageable in a project such as KiCAD compared to Big EDA tools.

EDA is dead because it is no longer fit for purpose. As unholy as it is, we engineers need to accept that software development has outdone us and we have to catch up. No more exchanging zip files, no more broken tools held together by custom scripts no-one can maintain, no more Digital Stockholm Syndrome, no more status quo. We're partly to blame for letting the situation deteriorate here.

The future is not EDA. People may still call it 'EDA', but it will be something else. It won't have any of that old, mouldy, ancient feel to it -- it will be fresh, fun, and different. I'm sure of it, because the path we're currently headed leads to a low point from which new innovative tools will emerge. If you're currently developing tools for engineers, I beg you to not accept the old ways and innovate in usability and the design process, not only in crunching numbers, and the obvious 'social', 'mobile', and 'cloud' buzz. I'm trying to do that with PCBmodE, and I can assure you that it's hard, but it may be worth it!

* I mostly talk about circuit design software here, but I know that it applies to all flavours of EDA. Prove me wrong.

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Boldport's form+function at Electronica 2014

One of the directions we're exploring at the moment is applying the concept of "beautifully functional circuits" to evaluation and development kits from IC and system companies. We think that it's prime time that existing boards evolve beyond the -- large, square, green, WindowsXP-CD-included, feature-creep-example, hard-to-use -- things that they are. We know that companies would like to have their boards stand out at shows, on-line, and in hardware hacking events. We know that companies would like to entice engineers to explore the unique capabilities of their products, and talk about them to their peers. We know that companies want to project innovation, modernity, and creativity. Applying all of these things to circuit boards is our speciality!

This week we will be at Electronica in Munich talking to companies about their needs and promoting the concept of form+function and how it applies to circuit boards. We'll be visiting stalls and would love to talk to anyone who is interested in our work. So please reach out, and also, kindly, help us spread the word.

(A recent example of a board that has been very successful at shows is the Nutclough, which we designed for Calrec. A case study is here.)

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PCBmodE version 3.0 released!

PCBmodE was publicly released in January 2013. I've created many boards with the software, but it remained somewhat of a personal project for various reasons. Recently I've decided to make a few improvements which quickly escalated to a full re-write of the software. The code is now more object-oriented, readable, organised, and so hopefully more attractive to contributors and users. Most importantly, however, the usage of the code is much more documentation-friendly. There aren't any new features, but adding them would be much easier with this code.

PCBmodE version 3.0 is hosted on Github, whereas older versions were hosted on Bitbucket. The main reason for the move was to see if this influences contributor engagement and exposure; this is where Github clearly wins over Bitbucket. A minor, but important, reason for the move was the lack of two-factor authentication on Bitbucket. There's no excuse for not having 2FA by now. It makes me feel like something is broken under the hood, or at least in the decision-making process at Atlassian. Otherwise I have no complaints for Bitbucket; it's a solid service that also offers free private repos, which is great.

Documentation was seriously lacking up to now and I always sympathised with the plight of those who really wanted to use PCBmodE but had no resources to work with. The documentation for version 3.0 is now done with the popular Sphinx+ReadTheDocs combo, and found here. It's not complete, but it's a start.

Boards made for older versions of PCBmodE will not compatible with version 3.0. There's now a separate repository for boards made for version 3.0 and older boards will be migrated as needed, if at all. A good stating design is the 'hello-solder' board.

Finally, I've changed the license from Apache to MIT. I felt that an MIT is more familiar to developers and more appropriate for the project. It shouldn't make much of a difference for most people.

Oh, new PCBmodE logo!

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I really hope that PCBmodE will experience more users and develop a healthy and productive community around it. Please help where you can and send feedback my way.

Solder on!

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Boldport in London

Boldport has moved to London. We have an office at WeWork Southbank and I've just arrived here to see it for the first time -- it opened today and it looks great!

The move was motivated by both business and personal reasons. You see, Cambridge is very much a technology-focused place where product design, productising, and packaging of technology is very often secondary to the technology itself. (Think of the initial poor usability of Raspberry Pi and ARM's licensing model to name a couple of prominent examples for this. A perhaps apocryphal story is that in a large Cambridge Consulting company, industrial design folk are lovingly called "yellow-plastic people".)

Cambridge is not a place that attracts designers, which are typically found in numbers and in quality in London. In turn London doesn't seem to have the kind of hardware engineers as Cambridge. I base it on my own experience of having myself and others imported from Cambridge to London for HW development and other anecdotal evidence. (Here I would have mentioned BERG as an example for a company that is certainly design-lead and that also developed hardware, but they shut down last month.)

Boldport's "beautifully functional circuits" is not just a cute slogan, it embodies the attitude of placing form and hardware functionality at the same level of importance, each constantly influencing the other in the design process. I think that there could be much more appreciation for this concept in London than there has been in Cambridge. It's also be easier to hire talented people.

Boldport is looking for business. You can help by talking to us about what we can do together, giving us your thoughts, or buying something from the shop.

I'm excited about this change and look forward to great things ahead!

 

 

 

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Case study: The 'Nutclough' commemorative board for Calrec Audio

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Earlier this year, Kevin from Calrec Audio contacted me about a board. (Thanks to the always thoughtful Andrew Back for making the connection!) Calrec is a leading maker of broadcasting audio equipment and this year they're celebrating "50 years in audio"!

Last year Calrec created a simple audio amplifier board kit. This year, being a significant one, they wanted it a bit more special. They came to the right place ;)

Last year's board (not designed by me!). A pretty standard, square, single-layer PCB. I was really happy that Calrec approached me to design something "different" this year.

Last year's board (not designed by me!). A pretty standard, square, single-layer PCB. I was really happy that Calrec approached me to design something "different" this year.

Calrec provided the schematics and choice of components, and I started researching and drafting concepts for the board. It was important for us to have references to Calrec, of course, but also to the 50-year celebration. Two elements of the circuit needed particular attention: the bulky 9V battery and the large speaker. Cost was a primary consideration, so that meant that the board needed to be kept about the same dimension as the previous one.

One of my first concept drawings. At this stage already I decided to go with an audio desk profile as a reference to Calrec's products. I was playing with having two pieces, one for the circuit (bottom right) and another for mounting the speaker. The hole is for the the speaker's back to sit in; the surrounding holes is for mounting the speaker/board to other things.

One of my first concept drawings. At this stage already I decided to go with an audio desk profile as a reference to Calrec's products. I was playing with having two pieces, one for the circuit (bottom right) and another for mounting the speaker. The hole is for the the speaker's back to sit in; the surrounding holes is for mounting the speaker/board to other things.

This one is similar to the previous sketch except that I wanted to make use of all the space, so the idea of a detachable token germinated, which will carry through to the final design.

This one is similar to the previous sketch except that I wanted to make use of all the space, so the idea of a detachable token germinated, which will carry through to the final design.

The token idea is further refined. Here, the speaker could be attached to the corner of the board, and another piece is detached leaving the desk profile. This concept has more space for the circuit itself so it was more practical.

The token idea is further refined. Here, the speaker could be attached to the corner of the board, and another piece is detached leaving the desk profile. This concept has more space for the circuit itself so it was more practical.

The idea of the board standing up instead of lying down came up and this is the first attempt. The concept was that the speaker would be mounted perpendicular to the board to support it (in the square recess on the right). Actually, this one shows both the possibility of the board lying down and standing up. Initial thoughts about UI are shown as LEDs that are connected on the side of the board with each lead on either side of the board. This concept did not survive to the final design ;)

The idea of the board standing up instead of lying down came up and this is the first attempt. The concept was that the speaker would be mounted perpendicular to the board to support it (in the square recess on the right). Actually, this one shows both the possibility of the board lying down and standing up. Initial thoughts about UI are shown as LEDs that are connected on the side of the board with each lead on either side of the board. This concept did not survive to the final design ;)

At this point I started making cardboard mock-ups. These are great for getting a feel for size and potential component placement or UI issues. It was also a great way to show Kevin the concepts visually to get his feedback.

The "lying down" concept with the space for the speaker, LEDs and UI. The old board is there for size reference.

The "lying down" concept with the space for the speaker, LEDs and UI. The old board is there for size reference.

Here it is with the speaker in its place.

Here it is with the speaker in its place.

After feedback from Kevin, I assembled the following mock-up, the first 'standing' concept -- it was now clear that we're going to do that.

The cut-out on the right will be used to allow the board to stand even when the speaker isn't mounted. At this point we were still thinking that users may want the speaker to be mounted elsewhere, not necessarily on the board.

The cut-out on the right will be used to allow the board to stand even when the speaker isn't mounted. At this point we were still thinking that users may want the speaker to be mounted elsewhere, not necessarily on the board.

Standing!

Standing!

Speaker and UI components mounted. It was clear that the speaker needed better mounting to hold it in place more firmly. Also, the sides of the speaker are not straight, so it doesn’t provide great support.

Speaker and UI components mounted. It was clear that the speaker needed better mounting to hold it in place more firmly. Also, the sides of the speaker are not straight, so it doesn’t provide great support.

Thinking of how to deal with the battery, I attempted to use it for support, but it was ugly when I tried it. Quickly scrapped.

Thinking of how to deal with the battery, I attempted to use it for support, but it was ugly when I tried it. Quickly scrapped.

In another round of feedback we decided that the speaker needs to be mounted, and the best place for it is in the back of the board, firmly attached and providing support for the boards. Also, I decided to be more explicit with the reference to sk, and so used the exact proportional scaled dimensions Calrec's flagship desk, the Apollo.

I used the exact proportional dimensions as the Apollo desk.

I used the exact proportional dimensions as the Apollo desk.

The speaker is now mounted on the back and the board sits comfortably upright. The Apollo profile looks great, except that it adds about a third to the board's size. This space is not efficiently used, and adds cost to the board.

The speaker is now mounted on the back and the board sits comfortably upright. The Apollo profile looks great, except that it adds about a third to the board's size. This space is not efficiently used, and adds cost to the board.

The situation with the battery was getting worrisome. I couldn't find a place for it such that it is out of view, but still attached to the board so it doesn't hang.

The situation with the battery was getting worrisome. I couldn't find a place for it such that it is out of view, but still attached to the board so it doesn't hang.

I had an idea that could provide a nice place to put the battery and reduce the size of the board so it's cheaper. 

I shrunk the Apollo profile and raised it so that there's an area behind which the battery could be hidden from view. This also gave me space to put Calrec's logo and their "50 years in audio" logo. By this point the layout was ready, so I used a printout so get more visual feedback on the mock-up. 

I shrunk the Apollo profile and raised it so that there's an area behind which the battery could be hidden from view. This also gave me space to put Calrec's logo and their "50 years in audio" logo. By this point the layout was ready, so I used a printout so get more visual feedback on the mock-up. 

The battery is held by a metal clip so it doesn't hang. This also provides support for the board. Most importantly, it doesn't show from the front, as you face the board.

The battery is held by a metal clip so it doesn't hang. This also provides support for the board. Most importantly, it doesn't show from the front, as you face the board.

This worked! Kevin signed off on the design, and it was lovingly made by P&M Services over at Todmorden, West Yorkshire.

Front and back of the board.

Front and back of the board.

As I mentioned before, the board has a token that can optionally be broken off and used on a keyring, for example. The mill in which Calrec offices are is quite a landmark and is very much part of the company's identity. I wanted to have it featured on the board in order to tie the board to the company even further. In my mind's eye I imagined Calrec employees in another 50 years showing this token to young engineers and saying "I was there" :D

The token can be easily broken off the board and attached to a keyring or anything else ;)

The token can be easily broken off the board and attached to a keyring or anything else ;)

The token is constructed from various combinations of front and back copper, and soldermask. This allows for different effects when light is shown through the token, changing its appearance.

The token is constructed from various combinations of front and back copper, and soldermask. This allows for different effects when light is shown through the token, changing its appearance.

The windows, doors, and other features don't have copper so light can go through.

The windows, doors, and other features don't have copper so light can go through.

In full effect! The vertical lines in the Calrec logo now come into view. It's a nice result for something that otherwise would have been scrap material!

In full effect! The vertical lines in the Calrec logo now come into view. It's a nice result for something that otherwise would have been scrap material!

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After some assembly, here it is!

Assembled board, front view.

Assembled board, front view.

Side view. The speaker holds the board upright.

Side view. The speaker holds the board upright.

The view from the back. The battery is held firmly by a metal clip.

The view from the back. The battery is held firmly by a metal clip.

This was an incredibly fun project and embodies what Boldport is about -- beautifully functional circuits. I hope to have the opportunity to work on many more such projects so if you have a need please get in touch! As a reference, the project was billed at 2.5 days of work and Kevin of Calrec had this to say

Calrec Audio wanted something unique to commemorate the company’s 50th anniversary, and as Calrec started with a group of electronic hobbyists designing home amplifiers, it seemed appropriate to commission a small open-source amplifier circuit.

Boldport turned that circuit into a beautiful, eye-catching, self-supporting board which we have since used as a DIY giveaway to customers, and in several electronics workshops for children. It even has a snap-out key ring! They were very patient with our somewhat idiosyncratic ways of working and were incredibly collaborative, taking that initial concept and transforming it into a piece of art.

Boldport have a first-rate ethos, with an emphasis on open-source designs and promoting electronics for all. Moreover, they make it fun. We would have no hesitation in recommending them.

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Sane perception of value of electronics

"How much does a cartoon cost?"

"$20"

"Twenty bucks for something that takes you five minutes?!"

"Five minutes and twenty years."

 

Occasionally people comment about the perceived high cost of the stuff that we sell at the Boldport shop. The first couple of times I tried to explain why those items simply have to be sold at this price in order to be viable, and what's unique about then, but then I stopped. My response now is that the price is what it is and that all the stuff in the shop is open source, so I encourage anyone to make their own if they want to make modifications or think that it'd be cheaper that way.

As engineers we tend to mentally cost things up based on the sum of their components. (A recent email said that the price was too high for a "PCB and some components".) That's unfair. It disregards the time and cost that went into research, experimentation, thought, prototypes, packaging, presentation, and the hundred different things that are required to make something sell-able. Oh, and years of experience.

We're also in a perverse time where the goalposts are set by unrealistic low-balled Kickstarter project promises, mass-produced products (Arduino's and Raspberry Pi's), heavily sponsored boards (FPGAs), and uninspiring junk sold in baggies at Maplin. Not everything can be made in large quantities in China, and not everything can be scraped down for the sake of shaving off a pound from the BOM. When I design boards, I first research the concept and then research for components that fit functionally and visually into that concept. If those end up more expensive than something that doesn't, then tough, I won't compromise on the concept. Also, I make kits in 30--300 quantities; hardly enough to contact Flextronics or travel to China for establishing a relationship with a fab. (I hope that I'll get there eventually, though ;)

I fear that the concepts that I'm trying to promote have no place -- I get plenty of good feedback, but virtually no sales. Cost, of course, is one potential issue here, but I cannot (yet) see a way to maintain the level of quality I want to offer within the guiding concept of "beautifully functional circuits" if the value doesn't shine through. I'm probably doing something wrong, and I'm trying to figure out what that is.

Finally, worse than the impact on Boldport, I also fear that the low goalposts situation may be preventing us from being more creative in our craft. That would be bad.

 

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A few assembly tricks

It's inevitable that interesting hacks emerge as one creates and assembles circuit boards. Over time I've come up with a few techniques that help me get the job done, and I'm happy to share them. The tools are Kapton tape, a straight top-edge good quality knife, and a hammer. The boards in the video are the 'itemv' smartcard analysis tool, the 'cordwood puzzle', and in the corner there, the 'superhero' plaque.

Add your own techniques in the comments below!

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Sweet old code of mine

During my undergraduate studies at UCSC I had an (excellent) electronics lecturer that liked to say that if another lecturer -- a hardcore software guy -- would look at his code, he'd call it 'immature'. I always liked that reference, and since I don't consider myself a programmer -- I've always viewed my software development as means to an end, not the end in and of itself -- I also tended to refer to my own code as immature.

The bulk of PCBmodE was written in the second half of 2012 with improvements that made it possible to design complete two layer boards added during the first half of 2013. Since then I've been patching it as I went along, but there's surprisingly few things I need to tweak when I'm designing boards with it these days. It works! (Yes, that's easy for me to say because I know where everything is!)

PCBmodE code is 'immature'. It was the first major software I've written in Python, and it's messy. I'm now working on another Python project for a client and I can tell how much I'd progressed in my understanding of Python's structure and organisational abilities. Like many, I'm sure, I'm slightly embarrassed with the code I've written in the past that's out there.

When I released PCBmodE as an open source project in early 2013, I was hoping for a community of users and contributors to grow around it. That didn't happen, and the 'immaturity' of the code is partly to blame. Some time after the release I decided that if I wanted to make a living from 'beautifully functional circuits', I must concentrate on making things with PCBmodE rather than trying to get people to use it. It was a resource allocation trade-off. So the software remained unused and unusable by others.

But maybe there's no need for PCBmodE as a tool? That's certainly a possibility, and that's one  reason why I'm concentrating on creating things with it rather than working on improving it for wider use. The other reason, of course, is that I don't want to enter the EDA business.

I'd really like to spend a month (or more) to refactor the entire codebase and introduce new features I've been working on, but I cannot afford to. I hope that in the future that would happen, perhaps in piecemeal over time. Until then, 'immature' code it is!

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New website, new message

You've probably noticed that Boldport has a new website. A year ago when I wrote the old site I didn't quite have a pitch to emphasise; I was still exploring possible directions. This had to change since of late I imagined visitors thinking "right, you make beautiful circuits. We agree! Now what?!" There was no part that really said what the business was and how it could be useful to you, the visitor.

The message is clearer now. As always, I'd be grateful for any comments, good and bad, about the site's look and content. To celebrate the new website, two of our kits are on sale until Monday 30th of June!

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Beautiful resistance

By now, when I look at components I evaluate their aesthetics as much as I do their functionality. When I design boards, the

look and feel

of the component has to fit the design, not only what it's supposed to be doing. Resistors come in an amazing spectrum of colours -- particularly older ones! -- and I wanted to find a way to use them for their colour rather than their value.

I had a bunch of resistors -- 1/8W and 1/4W -- left over from a project and I wanted to experiment with a symmetrical arrangement.

A week or so ago it was raining and I found refuge at a Maplin. Looking around I found an amazingly colourful resistor pack, and I made this piece with its contents.

The base is made of a soda can. I found it to be just the right thickness for the job, although a copper foil might have been better for the square piece. I experimented with a bunch of methods for fixing the resistors in place while still having bright 'background' colours.

What I've done is to set the resistors in regular acrylic paint. That meant that they are attached to each other through a common base, but can still move a bit for final adjustment. Then I attach the resistor 'pack' to the metal base with epoxy and apply acrylic on the top to fill in all the holes and get an even coat (that needed to happen more than just once). When it's nearly dry I soak the whole thing in water and peel off the paint that's on the resistors -- this didn't work quite as well as I had hoped. You'll notice that some of the resistors are battered from the numerous peelings.

Finally, I apply a transparent acrylic pouring medium to create the 'dome' and give it a shine. You'll notice that there are bubbles and some 'cloudy' areas in this dome -- I'll need to figure out how to avoid that from happening.

There's still work do be done to get these things to look perfect, but as a first go I'm happy with the results. Imperfect as they are, each goes as a gift to one of the two women in my life ;)

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8 Comments

Cleanly de-soldering a pin header

Know that sinking feeling right after realising that you've soldered that 40-pin header on the wrong side of the board? I know it too well. When that happens you either need to chuck out the board or re-work it until the pesky thing submits to heavy use of heated force. The result is often ugly and most likely results in a lifted pad, which makes the soldering of another header -- the right way round this time -- harder.

I've come up with a technique that works for me for removing the wrongly-placed header, and here's a video of me executing this circuit surgery:




The advantage of this technique is that it doesn't require any special equipment. What you'd need is a soldering iron with a pointy tip, tweezers/pliers, flush cutter, and a solder wick. The trade-off is that you will need to sacrifice the header in order to save the board. Here's the procedure:

  1. Cut the pins on the back side as close to the board as you can
  2. Cut the pins on the top side close to the black holder
  3. Using pliers/tweezers/flat screwdriver, gently lift the black holder from the pins until it's completely removed
  4. Using a pointy soldering iron tip, heat the flat pads on the back side and push the pin by inserting the tip into the hole in the board. If the pin doesn't fall off use pliers to pick i
  5. Use a wick to extract the excess solder from the hole. If needed, use the pointy iron tip to get the solder to stick to the pad and clear the hole
That's it! Watch out not to damage other components with the iron or hot wick. Also, make sure that the iron is hot enough for rework and never press too hard on the iron so that the pads don't lift.



Do you have any other re-work techniques?

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Apple acquires Boldport!

Press releases go out tomorrow, but I've been permitted to write about the news today for the loyal readers of this blog: Apple acquired Boldport! We've been negotiating since January and have finally gotten the deal through.

Steve Jobs famously insisted that every bit of Apple's products look good, even the circuit boards that the consumer will never see. Beautifully functional circuits -- Boldport's tagline -- is a natural continuation of this concept, where circuit boards are designed with emphasis on both function and form, and are celebrated on their own right, not necessarily hidden behind cheap plastic enclosures. Thus, Apple is the right place for Boldport to continue its growth and a great vehicle to realise its vision.

Starting immediately I'll be sharing my time between Cupertino and London and will be leading a newly established group that's dedicated to realising the vision I started out with. This vision will be applied in practice through products made for Apple's triumphant entry into a new market. Sadly, I cannot say more than that at the moment.

A bit of sad news is that I've had to agree that PCBmodE -- the software we developed to create our circuit boards -- will become an internal Apple tool and no longer be an open source project. However, I'm still able to sell Boldport's products until stocks run out, so get your beautiful circuits now!

A new era for Boldport begins today!

(UPDATE: by 'today' I meant April Fools' day ;)

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4 Comments

Reflow with a hair straightener


I love using things for what they were not intended for. Often it doesn’t quite work out, but I had a good feeling about this next one. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and saw my girlfriend's hair straightener staring at me. My one track mind -- circuits! -- immediately realised the potential in this commoditised el-cheapo piece of kit, even for someone, like myself, without much hair to burn!

I spent a few hours researching hair straighteners. What I needed was:

* Floating plates are springy in order to have even pressure on the hair. Since for my use I wouldn't press the plates together, I was concerned that they wouldn't be quite parallel so would heat the board unevenly. Being able to press one end on each plate would give me more flexibility.

* Temperature control is essential with some of the cheaper hair straighteners having a fixed temperature setting (not good!). The best range I could find is 150°C -- 230°C which is within the reflow of low temperature solder paste. All good.

* A locking mechanism is useful for fixing the plates into place. Some allow locking at various positions. The one I got locks "closed", but still has a wide enough of a gap.

* A long swivelling power cord seemed like a good idea.

* A stylish carrying case.

I decided to go for the Remington S3500 Ceramic Straight 230 Hair Straightener; street value of £15. (I expected both plates to be "floating", but only the bottom one is, but it turned out not to be an issue since the plates are parallel even with a 3--4 mm gap.) Here's a video of the process and results



I'm quite pleased with the outcome:


It's certainly not a replacement for a reflow/toaster oven, but could find its use in some cases such as a localised soldering job to avoid melting other bits, etc. Also, it's mobile.

What do you think?

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4 Comments

Three awesome colours to say that you're damn good at what you do!



BAM! There will be no mistake that you're a fucking good engineer and you know it!
This plaque comes in three different custom, unique, colours: red-orange, light-blue, and green-yellow. These are meant to be close -- but not quite -- to the traditional red, green, blue that you'd see on other, ordinary, boards. This way, it still looks somewhat like a PCB, and not something else. The boards are ENIG coated and shine like a charm when light goes through them.

This is the second edition of this plaque. We've only two made two for the first edition, and one of them was won at an auction by oomlaut for £105!  For this second edition of the plaque we made 50 of each colour. Each plaque is numbered, signed, and dated by myself.

Please don't let four letter words distract you from what's unique in this board! The familiar electronic symbols span several layer stacks to compose the complete symbol. This is a unique feature that I haven't seen done before.


Ready to tell the world you're fucking good at what you do? Get the plaque from Boldport's store!

(Oh, as usual, this board is open source hardware. The files are here, and I'd be happy if you make some for yourself and others!)


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Making beautiful solder points

Rows of shiny domes on the 'cuttlefish' board
I'd like my boards to look and feel the best as they can, particularly for photos. I invest a lot of effort and attention in the detail and look of my boards, but that's not enough if the end result, components and all, does not look as polished.
The Cordwood Puzzle
When I solder through-hole components, I will typically cut the lead, or anything poking out, together with the solder blob as close to the board as possible using flush cutters. (Using flush cutters is important since regular cutters taper in for the cutting edge, which does not allow cutting as close to the board as needed.)
Any through-hole pad can be made to be smooth. This is a board from Tom Hartley.
You'll be left with a rough surface that needs to be touched-up with an iron. Sometimes that's all it takes, but often you'd want to add some solder to create a nice dome. If it didn't work out, cut off the abomination and redo.
When I'm happy with how the solder points look, I clean the burnt flux with Flux Off. The board can become a bit sticky after that, so give it a good clean afterwards. You now have a beautiful board with smooth solder points!
Here's a video I've made of the process
 
In the video it looks more laborious than it really is once you get used to it. The one thing to be careful of is to not cut off the soldermask when cutting off the blobs!

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A tribute to the cordwood construction of old


Back when electronic components were large and circuit board technology was in its infancy, clever engineers used the 'cordwood' construction to save space. We rarely need that sort of assembly method any more, but when I first saw it, I thought that it was a beautiful example of form meets function in engineering.

The Cordwood Puzzle lit up

I had to make a tribute that combined old and new, and it comes to you in a form of an engineering puzzle!

Packaged as a kit

In order to save costs and make things interesting, I wanted to have the two boards be exactly the same. I designed the board and circuit such that its function depends on its position, and how it is connected. That's part of the puzzle that you'd need to figure out when putting the circuit together ;)


The 2 W resistors are used for their size, not their power rating. The three coloured LEDs are 2.1 V so that you'd only need one resistor value (150 Ω) to drive each of them at 20 mA. This simplified the circuit compared with using other colours, and also gave the board some flair even when it is not powered up. There's an n-channel FET for each LED, where the gate is connected to a pin and pulled high through a 10 KΩ resistor (it's a high value so that whatever drives it only sinks a tiny bit of current). This means that when power is applied to the circuit all the LED turns on, but the state of each LED can also be controlled from a microntoroller.

Each LED can be individually controlled

And if you like it, you can get one for yourself at the Boldport shop! The BoM is here and the (strangely missing ;) assembly guide is here (SPOILER ALERT!). As usual, the design is open source hardware -- get the files from here and make your own version!



The Cordwood Puzzle is based on a previous design codenamed 'deadwood' that I did months ago, but never really documented. It was manufactured through OSH Park with many components kindly donated by oomlaut. The design files are here, and below are some pictures.


It's possible to use regular resistors
I originally found these beautiful resistors at Makespace

These lovely colourful LEDs came from oomlout!

It's hard to see, but there are copper hexagons under the soldermask

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