Perspective

Hi Everyone, Ben Jordan here.

Remember me? I did a whole raft of videos about Altium Designer “design secrets”, ran tech support for a while, and then was the whole business owner for “CircuitMaker” for it’s first two years of life.

I’ve been playing around in Upverter for a few months now, because we (Altium) acquired Upverter and I was asked to work with these guys.

At first, I had some apprehension. I’m shooting you straight here. It came from about 2 years ago when I did some competitive analysis between Upverter and CircuitMaker for the live collaboration capabilities. At that time, Upverter felt so restrictive to me because from the ground up the user interface is designed to have one (and only one) way to perform each task in the design process, whereas Altium software (Altium Designer, CircuitMaker etc.) typically offer a much more featured and flexible approach. That’s not always better, by the way – it depends who you are and what you want to acheive.

So, taking a deep breath, I forced myself to go through a complete project from front to back, to make myself learn how to use Upverter and to see what the philosophy really was behind it from inception.

And you know what?

I’m a believer.

I don’t say this lightly.

Upverter as a startup since 2011 put all their effort into doing things differently than the “old EDA” guard. The user experience philosophy was strongly typed to not just make a schematic and PCB tool in the cloud, but to make it do the bidding of designers in the simplest way possible. And initially, I’m not gonna lie, to someone who spent literally years learning a “mainstream” power tool for board level electronics design (ie. me) Upverter at first seemed overly simple. But scratching the surface by forcing myself to use Upverter for a *real project* has totally given me a new perspective.

Upverter_Board

This tool is efficient because it’s elegent. Elegence in software and UX design is actually extremely hard to do. The more progress you make on a product design – hardware or software – the more ideas enter into the mix, and the more tempting it is to add those features. This is called feature creep in traditional software circles, but more commonly referred to as “bloat” these days.

At first, working with Upverter felt a little too tight and restrictive for me, but it wasn’t long before I realized that the design was getting done faster than I had expected, and it was because of a few things that would be easy to take for granted if you’d been using Upverter for a while:

  • Obvious control menu structure.
  • Selection Filters.
  • Automatic synchronization.
  • Every numerical field is a calculator.

There are quite a few others too – but I’m still learning Upverter and these were the first few UI/UX items that stood out as productivity gains to me. My favorite is perhaps the last one – that in any object properties dialogue you can type a mathematical formula into the field and Upverter will just calculate the result for you. This saves so much time especially when creating footprints for new components. It’s a thing you’d expect any tool to have, and I can say that Altium Designer users have been asking for this for many years and still don’t have it. (They have other cool stuff BTW, but still…)

UPV_Calculator

That may seem like a small thing. It’s HUGE. This alone saved me LOTs of time doing the design you see above (my next Guitar Pedal Design – I’m calling it the “Sausage Factory” – stay tuned for a video demoing the prototype!!)

There’s a lot more to say, but a blog shouldn’t be too long – but as I learned a long time ago, the best way to learn something is to have to teach it to someone else. So to that end, look forward to future blogs and videos from me about how to actually do cool designs and use these productivity accelerators in Upverter.

My hat’s off to Zak, Mike and Steve for doing the hard work of being a startup, and taking on the hard problems of hardware. I’m personally excited that together we can make hardware less hard – even more, make it so you can take your ideas and turn them into working devices, regardless of who you are. Whether you’re a student, hobbyist, hacker, or professional engineer it does not matter. Together we’re making Upverter into the platform that will make it easy to get to a working “thing”.

Make a PCB Online From Start to Finish

Using the right online PCB design software gives you flexibility and lets you collaborate with other designers.

Whether you’re a hardware or software person, you’re probably ingrained with that entrepreneurial spirit. You’ve got the vision and the knowledge you need to turn your electronics dreams into reality, but you’ve still got one more obstacle to overcome: you need to build it.

Sometimes budgets don’t measure up to the overall vision of your device. Unless they have the cash to spare, entrepreneurs have to operate on shoestring budgets and need to find the most cost-effective ways to reach their goals. Since the circuit board forms the central nervous system of your electronic device, you’ll need access to PCB design software that can meet your device requirements without breaking the bank.

That’s why online PCB design software might be the best choice to start designing your device. So what is the best way to get started? How do you get from a design on paper to creating deliverables for a manufacturer? The road from concept to product can be made smooth with a great online PCB design software platform.

Which Platform is Right for Me?

If you start searching for an online design platform, you might be unsure which platform is the best for you. So how do you pick the right platform? First things first, avoid the freemium sites. No one wants to spend hours designing their device, only to be told that they need to pay in order to keep their schematic.

When you find a platform, you should make sure it takes you all the way to generating your manufacturer deliverables. An online design platform should actually be a complete platform that includes schematic, circuit board layout, and bill of materials features. The platform should also be integrated with a thorough components library.

Just because an online platform is free doesn’t mean that it can’t contain advanced design features. The most powerful online design software should include rules checking and design constraint features. This will ensure that your designs will meet basic quality standards. Other features like a 3D viewer are extremely useful.

One great way to break into PCB design and bring a new device online quickly is to use a development board. These boards are very versatile and contain many features that can help expedite your design process. The documentation on these boards is very thorough, and tutorials for using these boards can be found online. These boards also mount easily to PCBs and make it easy to interface with other components.

Schematic and Layout

Whether you’re designing online or you’ve spent a bunch of money on a software package, you’ll start designing your product by drawing up a schematic. Your schematic will contain all the electronic components and display your connections between components. You can also write some important notes for yourself in the schematic. Think of it as a blueprint but without all the measurements.

At first glance, it may seem unnecessary to build a schematic of your design. Why not just jump straight into a PCB layout? Why should I have to build the device twice? Once you complete your layout, it may not be obvious how components are connected. This is where schematics are invaluable: they give you a broad view of your device. It is easy to see how components connect to each other, while these connections can be less obvious on a finished PCB layout.

Once you finish your schematic, your layout should be automatically captured and generated based on your schematic. The generated layout will include all the components in your schematic and will have pre-mapped connections between components. You’ll still need to route between components, place copper pours for power and ground, and arrange components to your liking.

When you view your layout for the first time, you may find that it is not how you imagined. Components might appear in odd places, and connections between components might not appear as you imagined. The layout might not initially meet your form factor requirements, and the schematic gives you the opportunity to rearrange your components to fit your packaging.

Once you are inside the layout, you might find that it becomes useful to use more advanced design and routing techniques to save space in your design. Placing traces in multiple layers is important in PCBs with a large number of components but strict form factor requirements. An online platform should include via placement capabilities so that you can route between multiple layers.

Enforcing Design Rules

PCB design is one of those fields where it is easy to start building simple devices. When you are not worried about high speed, high frequency, low power, high current, high temperature, RF communication, or mixed-signal capabilities, most designs you create will likely operate just fine. Designing in consideration of these other requirements is difficult to master and requires adhering to a specific design rule or many.

If you have not designed devices in any of the above areas in the past, you may not have all the relevant design rules memorized. That’s why your online design platform should have the capability to enforce standard design rules for different applications. Not all design rules are set in stone, meaning that certain design rules are meant to operate as constraints. Certain constraints on feature sizes and clearance need to be met in certain applications.

Certain features, especially those appearing in multilayer boards, should also be customizable in an online design platform. Trace sizes, pads, via dimensions, and copper pour areas should all be customizable. This is especially important if you work with certain parts like development boards, as the footprint of these devices cannot be changed. You will need to design your routing and copper pour features to accommodate development if you decide to use them.

Automated PCB manufacturing

Manufacturing Deliverables

It should go without saying that you should always build and test a functional prototype of your device before you start ordering fabricated prototypes. Ordering a large-run is only a good idea if you have tested your functional prototype and your fabricated prototypes, followed by completing any required redesigns. All prototypes should be thoroughly tested before moving to full production, and this will give you an opportunity to fix any problems in your design if needed.

Once you finish your design, checked that it meets standard design rules, and decided you are ready to fabricate a prototype, it’s time to prepare deliverables for your manufacturer. Your design platform will need to generate certain documents based on your board layout. A great online design platform should quickly generate your manufacturer outputs. These documents include a bill of materials, Gerber files and Excellon files, and CAD/CAM files of your device.

All of these files will tell your manufacturer the information they need to plan out the fabrication and assembly process. The bill of materials is important as it contains sourcing and pricing information for components that appear on the board. It should also contain acceptable substitutes for your components in case there is a problem with sourcing. Always check with your manufacturer and get a list of required deliverables.

Collaboration

If you are putting together a team of designers or you are working in a remote organization, an online PCB design platform is perfect for team collaboration. A great online platform gives the design owner the power to add collaborators and document design changes. You should be able to switch between versions easily and download different versions of finished layouts.

Collaboration is extremely smooth and easy in an online PCB design platform. This type of collaboration is excellent for new designers as it gives multiple people an instant view into a project. When more people are collaborating, there is a better chance that design problems can be caught before a board goes to production.

You don’t need to be a large company with a massive budget to jump into PCB or electronics design. Now you can have access to the tools you need to build your dream device with browser-based design software. IoT 360 helps you achieve your design goals with built-in a ton of built-in components and an intuitive user interface. IoT 360 gives you the power to design professional-level devices while helping you stay within your budget.

Sign-up for our service and contact us for more information if you want to learn more about the capabilities of browser-based design and product development.

Tour Update – June 12th and 14th.

So June 12th and 14th we travelled to New York and Boston to meet local users of Upverter and Circuitmaker, east some great BBQ, and connect on the merge and how it’s all going. 

Connecting in person, meeting some new friends, and some old ones, is always good!

Overall, we have so far had a good response, with most people coming to the events having used Upverter mainly, CircuitMaker a little, and it was great to be able to share plans.

The cool thing is the people who came out confirmed what we believed: that designers of the future are not necessarily electrical engineers, and that we need to bring Upverter and Circuitmaker together to create a system that’s easy to use but powerful enough to allow people of any skill or discipline to get their ideas working.

20180612_194156

In Brooklyn, NY, JF Brandon brought along a BotFactory SV2 PCB printer – this baby is in pre-production and soon to be released so it was great having a sneak preview. Who knows, maybe he’ll let me borrow one for a while and do some vlogging with it – fingers crossed 😉

20180612_192433
We also got to catch up with friends from PCB:NG – experts at rapid low-cost turnkey prototyping. Glad to hear the future about what we’re doing.

Myself, Zak and Mike then got the train up to Boston for the meetup on June 14th.

20180614_191505

We picked the Cambridge district to be close to MIT and Harvard. We already knew from Google Analytics that there are a bunch of CircuitMaker and Upverter users there. On of the local hacker spaces sent a couple of representatives along too, and there were a few post-grad researchers from MIT too. Talking to these fine people again confirmed that many Upverter and CircuitMaker users have some electronics knowledge but are not Electrical Engineers in their core job, research or discipline. They asked some great questions about the future of the platform, such as:

  • How does Altium propose to make electronics deisgn  more accessible?
  • What operating systems will we support in future versions of the CAD desktop?
  • How can we improve automation so anyone can quickly route the PCB or place components?
  • Which brand will remain – Upverter or CircuitMaker?
  • …and many more.

To these, we answer – we want to build a system for design that let’s users essentially start with a feature spec, bring in the “modules” they need, configure, tweak, customize, and build. This is hard to do. But we think with Upverter and CircuitMaker we have the technology, DNA, and investment capital to make this real. As to OSes – that’s the beauty of cloud – any device with a browser can run Upverter. For the desktop, true cross-platform (Windows, Mac and mainstream Linux) is on the roadmap but will take a little time. Automation is an interesting one – we definitely need to beef this up if we’re going to make design accessible, and machine learning will play a significant role.

And as to the branding question?…

Upverter.

 

EE’s Dilemma – Design Parts or Boards

Most engineers would rather design PCBs than libraries. But how can you trust a library with other contributors?

Whenever I talk to electronics designers about what they dislike the most when it comes to creating electronics the answer is almost always the same. Part creation. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to an experienced designer who’s been doing it for years or to a beginner whose been at it for 3 months, people don’t like “wasting” their time creating their components. Why is that?

There seems to be three basic reasons as to why people don’t like create their own components:

  1. Footprint, Symbol, 3D model Styles
  2. Trust
  3. Time

What if there was a way to solve all these issues and create a centralized database that we can all trust, agree on styling, AND not spend time creating? It may sound like a dream but I don’t think so, I think this is something completely within our grasp. Come with me and I will take you to the promised land.

Footprint & Symbol Styles

The first thing we need to do is to figure out how to solve the problem of style. We all have our preferred way of doing things, a way we like to view our schematics and boards. I propose we do the same thing that schools and the military do, uniforms. We take away the personalization of part creation and create a standard.

Now this isn’t a new radical idea, in fact its an old stale one but somehow it seems to be forgotten.  Way back in 1975 IEEE created the standard IEEE 315. This standard was made to fix this exact issue of how schematic symbols should look. I’m not sure exactly what happened but somewhere along the way people went their separate ways. It could be a new generation of designers or maybe people just didn’t want to change, either way that’s not the point. This standard was made for a reason and it should be followed.

The IEEE 315 standard is extremely comprehensive, so much so it includes schematic symbol elements allowing you to symbolize parts that haven’t even been invented yet. Let me explain. IEEE 315 gives a standard to construct any symbol, every line, dot, and feature has a meaning. With these tools available, one is able to construct any symbol for any possible component that does or does not exist.

IGBT Symbol Meaning

The next thing that we as designers need to come together on is the footprints / land patterns / decals for components. Just like with schematic symbols we don’t have a standard that we all are using despite there being a standard out there available to us. That standard is IPC-7351. IPC-7351 provides information on land pattern geometries used for the surface attachment of electronic components. This includes things like sizing and tolerance to insure there is sufficient area for all the appropriate solder fillets.

Caliper and CPU

So far we’ve taken a look schematic symbol and PCB footprint standards but there’s still one thing missing and that’s a standard for creating the 3D STEP model. And yes there is a standard for that as well, isn’t that great!? The standard for that is the JEDEC Publication No. 95. JEDEC 95 describes the dimensional and geometrical characteristics of “standard” component packages.

JEDEC_MO-012

Trust

Okay, so we’ve talked about how to standardize on schematic symbols, PCB footprints, and also 3D models. But what about the trust and time issue. We solve the trust issue by applying these standards. Once everyone or most people apply these standards to part creation as they should, we can all have a higher confidence that we’ve all done things correctly.

Of course nothing a person does is without error all the time. This is why we need an online database with everyone uploading their component models. And to be sure all components are up to standard we can crawl and verify each component as they’re uploaded. In addition to software verification, having users review and use components will give everyone a solid indication of which part is good and which is not.

Time

As you probably have guessed having this online database where users and professionals can upload their component symbols and models will save time, for everyone. It may surprise you but this isn’t a fantasy, well not completely. EE Concierge is a service that will create a complete component for you including schematic symbol, PCB footprint, and also a 3D model. The EE Concierge component making process follows the above industry standards so you know what you’re getting is correct and transferable to anyone. As for an online database filled with components, that’s where Octopart comes in. Octopart is a search engine for electronic components and industrial products. It includes things like a BOM scrubber, pricing and a bunch  more. It’s definitely worth checking out.

 

And away we go… Merge!

ricknmorty

 

Since joining Altium last summer we’ve been hard at work on a new version of Upverter. I wanted to give you a sneak peek of what to expect in the upcoming version!

The biggest change you’re likely to notice is that we are merging the Upverter and CircuitMaker communities together. For Upverter users this should be pretty amazing. You’ll notice a lot more users and a lot more stuff in the explore section. You’ll see a bunch of CircuitMaker designs that have been migrated over and can now be edited and forked inside Upverter. You’ll have a more powerful publishing platform for showcasing your work. You’ll also see a lot more activity on the forum, including all the old CircuitMaker forum posts.

Upverter is getting a lot more powerful, including the addition of sheet management, part alignment, spacing controls, reliable pours, and more.

Our library of verified parts is expanding to include all of the parts built and verified by the expert Altium librarians over the past 10 years. We’ve added over 250,000 parts to the Upverter library over the past few months.

One of the hardest and most exciting parts of the merge is that we are making the CircuitMaker desktop editor work with Upverter designs. Two of the biggest feature requests we’ve had over the years were an offline mode, and better routing. CircuitMaker is packed full of amazing Altium technology – hierarchical schematic, push-and-shove routing, batch output generation, Native3D™, and offline editing. Making CircuitMaker work seamlessly with Upverter will allow you to use Upverter for the kind of stuff it’s best at, and CircuitMaker when you need a desktop editor.

Our goal is the best of both worlds. To develop Upverter into the most powerful, but also the easiest to use, hardware product design platform. To remain natively cloud based and collaborative. But also to allow you to work offline, in desktop software and with the very powerful editing features CircuitMaker has baked-in whenever needed. It’s about choice and flexibility and our mission of helping you bring your ideas to life faster and easier.

Finally, we’ve substantially increased the number of engineers working on Upverter and we’re committed to investing in building the best Upverter platform we possibly can. We’re adding new, Upverter only features. We’re building ways to migrate powerful features from Altium Designer into Upverter. We’re making Upverter more extensible and hackable. And we’re working on a new and more approachable system design environment so less technical designers can bring their products to life in Upverter.

We are all pretty excited about this upcoming release and we’ll keep you posted as we work on it. We are also doing an event tour to share our ideas, give previews, and get your thoughts – more on that here. We don’t have a hard launch date for all of this, but it looks like Christmas time 2018.

Stay tuned!!

Zak & The Upverter Team

 

If you are a CircuitMaker user, you can read about the merge here.