Screaming Circuits: Industry


Open Source. What is it Good For?

I've written about open source hardware (OSHW) a few times before. Like this and this. I've understood open source software for quite some time and over the last few years have been starting to get what open source hardware is all about. It is different than open source software.

With software, your tangible product is essentially intangible. Your acquisition and distribution of an open source project can be virtually free. Not so with hardware. Someone has to physically build something, which costs time and money in parts and labor. Really though, all that means is the proliferation of an open source hardware product just takes a little longer. If you look at it as the design being open source more than the actual product, then it gets to be more and more similar to software.

While open source software has moved into real business, hardware is still more closely associated with the hobbyist community. That is changing though. Ti's Beagleboard is serious stuff from a serious company. Some of the hobbyist catering OSHW companies are growing to or have grown to the point of being serious businesses (Adafruit, Sparkfun).

This all begs the question: "What is open source hardware good for?" Let's divide and conquer. Or, at least, divide and explain.

  • What does it do for innovation?

History is rife with stories of great inventions that were not commercially successful because the inventor was a good inventor but was a lousy business person, didn't have access to funding or just didn't have the drive to build, promote and sell the product.

With OSHW, companies that do have the drive, funding and know-how can pick up an open source project from a developer that doesn't.  There are none of the IP concerns that sometimes keep big companies from taking on product from independent inventors. Great products that otherwise would stay hidden can make it out in the world.

Some OSHW companies, like Adafruit compensate the designers who's product they sell. No marketing or selling expense for the designer and yet money comes in to them. Much reduced design expense for the seller, yet they can build a business.

  • What does it do for small companies?

It's another way to jump-start design or production of products that will fund the small business. It can reduce the barriers to entry. People who are good at designing but not so good at selling can still earn money. People who are not so good at designing but good at selling can earn a living. People who are good at both designing and selling - they have the best of both worlds and can earn a living. Products that would otherwise stay in obscurity can more easily make it to the world.

  • What can it do for big companies?

The answer to this question has been the longest in coming, but there are more and more answers showing up. Take the Beagleboard from Texas Instruments. It got a new processor (the OMAP) out into the hands of their customers quickly. It was a great promotional tool. The software side of an organization could get started with the processor without having to wait for the hardware folks to design, layout and build the hardware. The hardware folks could see how the part and its accessories work in real life.

OMAP users could get a jump-start on complex tasks like escape routing. The manufacturing folks could get some insight and practice into assembling the package on package processor / memory combination. design cycles are short enough as it is. Companies that want to use the Ti processor get professionally designed short-cuts. Ti gets to sell more processors quicker. Everyone wins.

Duane Benson
It doesn't mean destruction

And The Race Goes On

AUP package The race for the smallest part is still going strong. That and the fact that basic logic gates are still with us is affirmed quite well with a new set of chips from NXP. The 74AUP2G00 is a dual two-input NAND gate in a no lead XSON8 package at just 1 mm x 1.35 mm. That's not the scary part. The scary part is the lead pads under the part are 0.15 mm wide and just 0.35 mm pitch center to center. That's 5.9 mils and 13.8 mils respectively. The gap between the pads is 0.2 mm (7.8 mils).

To put that in a little bit of perspective, an 0201 passive component is 24 mils x 12 mils. An 01005 is 16 mils x 8 mils.

Above right is a land pattern for the part with an 0201 bypass cap next to it. The trace going from the pin to ground (Pin 4) is an 8 mil trace. The trace going to VCC (pin 8) is six mils. The via is a pretty standard 24 mil via. As you can see, an eight mil trace and space isn't going to do for a board with this size of part on it. Six mil is really even a bit too big.

Duane Benson
La de da de de, la de da de da

CAD This or CAD That

I use Eagle CAD a lot. I can get away with the "Light" version, because the designs I create are small and non-commercial. I do use them sometimes to illustrate points here on my blog, but I think that still meets the qualifications of their free version. It's a good program and the multiple license levels from the free version up to the full professional version add a lot of flexibility to have the software grow with you.

Our partner, Sunstone, builds most of our PCBs here, which is a nice segue into an alternative CAD package. There are a lot of reasons to pick one CAD package over another. I won't go into that here because those reasons tend to be specific to the application. Most CAD packages are sold as a lump-sum purchase up front. A lot of them also have yearly license renewal fees. That works sometimes, but there are other times where up front costs are more important. The model that Sunstone uses for PCB123 is to provide the software at no charge and just add a little tiny bit of the software cost onto the PCB board purchase.

PCB123 isn't the only package that follows this business model and is tied into a specific PCB vendor. But, as far as I can tell, PCB123 is the only package of its sort that has enough capability to be a viable replacement for more traditional pay-first CAD packages.

I recently downloaded V4.1.11 and have started to run it through my own personal "can I use this for my stuff" test. I know it's a good package because we, here at Screaming Circuits get boards of all sorts designed with PCB123 to assemble from all manner of company. But, something can be a good package and still not fit an individuals specific requirements. Hence my personal tests.

I do find it odd, but not really an issue, that it starts you off in the layout editor instead of the schematic editor for a new design. Oh well. One click and I'm in the schematic where I can search for my parts. I use PIC chips and it's pretty rare that I find the exact chip. I always seem to have to find something close and then modify it, which just adds more opportunities for error. I know there's a jillion 28-SOIC,M28B_sml varieties, but once in a while it would be nice to just find the actual part.

Fortunately, today I'm looking for PIC18F2320 in an SOIC package. Fortunately, because it's actually there! I hit the "Insert" menu and choose "Add Part". Then I put "PIC18F23" in the search box, and there it is, but not on the computer. It was in their online labraries. (In the cloud?) It took all of about 15 seconds to automatically download the library footprint though, so first test = passed.

And the really cool thing is that once I have that part in there (for the parts found pre-made in the library), I just select the "Bill of Materials" tab down on the bottom and I can see if DigiKey has the part in stock and how much it costs.

Duane Benson
If it's in Oregon, the "cloud" is probably a rain cloud

Loooooooow Power

ESC Microchip clock 001 (Large) It's not quite grape power, but over in the Microchip booth, the EverReady folks were handing out little digital clock demos. Nothing sounds the least bit interesting about that, except what they're really showcasing is a little Microchip step-up DC-DC converter, the MCP1640. They're using that little chip and an Energizer 1.5V AAAA cell to power the chip at 3.3 volts. ESC Microchip clock 003 (Large)

Looking a little closer, it's a PIC16LF1933. On the other side of the battery, there's a set of six unpopulated pads labeled J1. I'm guessing that's the ICSP port. I do have MPLAB on my laptop here and I have my hand, dandy PicKit 3 with me as well. What I don't have with me is a soldering iron and a spare header... Actually, now that I think about it, I do have some six-pin headers down here with me. I might be able to put in into the PicKit and then just hold it tight to the solder pads. I'll probably sleep tonight though instead of staying up and writing something fun for this to do. I'd probably spend most of the night just trying to get the fuse bits figured out. A project for another day.

Duane Benson
It's a little big to strap on my wrist

Texas Instruments plus National Semiconductor

Everyone else seems to be weighing in on the Ti + NS acquisition so I thought I'd better do the same.

Depending on whom you speak with, the ramifications could be quite large or not terribly noticeable. 7400 TH Myself, I'm going for pretty much not noticeable. First, we've never met a National Semiconductor part that we didn't like. Second, we've never met a Texas Instruments part that we didn't like. I'm guessing that we'll never meet a Texas National Semiconductor Instruments part that we don't like either.

I feel better about the fact that it's one old-guard company buying up another old-guard then if it were a new upstart doing so. That makes this look to be more of a "Boeing buying McDonnell Douglas" than an "AOL buying Time Warner."

Duane Benson
I have met a blog post that I didn't like

Virtual Questions

Here's a question I received during my Virtual-PCB chat session back on March 8th.:

From Jack: "Here's my default question (as a designer), what is your biggest headache from designers?"

My answer: "Probably the most common difficulty has to do with CAD library footprints. That's really a headache caused by the CAD software"

Jack: "ha, well it seems like the majority of problems stem from incorrect library fottprints (including mask, silk, etc.) maybe we just need to get together and make a universal library for everyone, eh?"

I've been hearing a lot of lamentations over the last year regarding CAD library footprints. It seems to be one of those issues that has been around long enough and is now reaching a criticle mass of attention. There are a few partial solutions in the works. PCB123 is trying to make the most complete set of libraries possible. NXP has been supplying factory libraries to PCB123. There is the IPC-7351B land pattern generator. Some manufacturers give good footprint guidance at least (Ti, Freescale). Sparkfun and Adafruit are supplying libraries for most of the components that they use and sell.

All good things and all in the right direction, but still not a consolidated univeral effort. There's also talk flaoting around of croudsourcing libraries. I can see that working for Eagle and a few other packages, but I question whether large companies using expensive CAD systems would rely on such a thing. I guess that all means that we don't have a solution in sight, but if the problem is getting broad-based visibility, than maybe someone will come up with an actual complete answer.

Duane Benson
Esperanto for CAD libraries

The Most Important Thing

Actually, there are other things that may very well be more important. Oxygen and food certainly are. Roads are pretty important as well. Life would be difficult without them. But, for a job, a career, an  100px-Three_IC_circuit_chips Industry, I can't think of much that is more important than the very last sentence of the linked article here.

It's not difficult to find literature discussing the challenges facing the technology industry this country. There's always talk of the burdensome regulatory climate, unequal labor costs, government subsidies, dumping and on and on. But, what if we didn't focus on what's making things difficult for us? What if we, rather, focus on what we can do to make things better? Again, look at that last sentence (read the rest of the article too) and think about it.

Duane Benson
Zero - Ye ha, 500 blog posts!
(Is that a lot?)

Outsourced Out of a Future?

Alert! - Self-serving Content Ahead: I suppose I'm supposed to be self-serving now and then. I mean, I don't personally design and build things for a living. I do that for fun and dim hopes of robot world domination. These days, I tell people about things for a living so that makes it my job to be mostly self-serving ("self" being defined as "my company"). But self-serving isn't always bad. I couldn't get gas for my car here in Oregon without being self-serving. I could get hamburgers though, so I'll have to conclude that it's a 50-50 proposition.

We understand outsourcing here at Screaming Circuits. That's what we do - take people's outsourced prototype and short-run production assembly work. Being located in Canby Oregon, USA, we see both sides of the outsourcing discussion. As I said, on the one hand, we do assembly for other people. On the other hand, being a North American manufacturing company, we've seen a lot of work go offshore. Not that I'm against things not in the U.S. - I firmly believe that most of this country's success is due to the fact that we're from here, there and all over the world. But, I do want to have a job and I want my friends and family to have a job. We have to be worth something in this country and the rampant pace of off-shoring sometimes makes me wonder if we're just all deluding ourselves in that regard.

The prompt for this post is this article in the Los Angeles Times about Boeing's outsourcing in the 787 Dreamliner program. The quick summary of the article is to speculate that Boeing went way too far in their outsourcing and have put at risk not only the financial success of the program, but also the company's future engineering prowess.

Now, here's the self-serving part. The article outlines how they went wrong by over-outsourcing, but it also points to the value of specialty companies like Screaming Circuits:

"That's not to say that outsourcing never makes sense — it's a good way to make use of the precision skills of specialty manufacturers, which would be costly to duplicate." [from the above linked LA Time article]

That's us. We specialize in prototypes and small volumes. We specialize in new and difficult component package sizes. We see such a variety of different types of designs here in our shop that we get good at things like QFNs and Micro BGAs sooner than anyone else. (Hyperbole, perhaps, but I do believe it none the less). We've built things that go under water, up into space and everywhere in between. We don't specialize in one or a few specific vertical markets, like medical or consumer, we specialize in the prototype phase of the development program across virtually all market categories.

So, outsourcing: I'm in favor of intelligent outsourcing. My advice to you: Outsource where it make sense. Don't outsource where it doesn't. Look at the true cost of such decisions, not just the surface image. Keep some value add in your company and don't just become a marketing shell.

Duane Benson
Time to make my oatmeal.
One

Hello... Any Good Part Shipping Ideas?

Ever have one of those situations where there really aren't any good answers? There may be right answers, but not necessarily any that fit real well to the specific situation or are all that convenient. The question at hand relates to packaging and shipping small quantities of big ICs to your prototype house.

If you buy them in small quantities, go ahead and use that packaging to ship to Screaming Circuits. That's not a problem. The problem (and this question) comes in when you need to purchase a bunch of them but only need to use a few at a time. This is primarily an issue for parts that come in trays.

Let's say you have a 23 x 23mm BGA or QFP that came in a tray with 60 parts. You need to ship five of the parts for an assembly order at Screaming Circuits. We tell you not to ship them loose. You don't want to risk in-transit loss or damage to all 60 parts by shipping the full tray. What do you do?

For leadless parts like BGAs, LGAs and QFNs, you can VERY carefully pack each one in a small individual anti-static bag and then wrap them in bubble wrap. Make sure you don't damage any of the solder balls. You can't do that with leaded parts like QFPs. Don't do it. Bent leads don't solder well. And, don't put more than one BGA in an antic-static bag. Missing solder balls won't solder either.

For all types of chips, you can find someone that sells JEDEC Matrix IC Trays and see if they have any that meet your size and capacity requirements. www.Topline.tv or www.practicalcomponents.com are good places to start. That won't help much if it's Tuesday, noon and you need to make a shipping deadline of 3:00pm. But it will likely help for future projects. The other problem with this approach is that without the proper tools, it may be very difficult to get the parts out of one tray and into the other without bending a few pins.

The best option may very well be to just send in the full tray and have us send them back after we've assembled for that job. If you do choose to send in your full tray, we will treat all of the parts with care, bake if needed, properly reseal and pack them for the return trip to you.

Duane Benson
Three

Et Tu Embedded Passives

I don't know if or when embedded passives will become the "next big thing" in PCB design, but they are on the way. We, at Screaming Circuits, have been asked about the use of embedded passives a few times.

Embedded passives
The purported advantages of the technology lie primarily in the ares of cost reduction and space reduction. You could potentially get your bypass caps much closer to where they need to be as well. The space parameter is pretty obviously an advantage, but the jury is still out on costs. I suspect that at this moment, it's pretty difficult to find a board house that can fabricate a PCB with embedded passives.

If you're not familiar with the concept, capacitors or resistors are built up on the inner copper layers of the substrate. There are a couple different methods used such as plating, printing or thin-film. As shown in the illustration, the resistors and capacitors inside the PCB negate the need to mount them on the outside. I can see rework being a problem if any of those embedded parts has issues.

In terms of assembly, we wouldn't treat such a board any different than any other PCB. If your fab house notes that there are temperature or any other restrictions, let your assembly house know. Beyond that, all the standard rules apply.

Duane Benson
Note from Forbin: Colossus is watching