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Open source software has helped level the playing field for students, professional developers, and entrepreneurs looking for their next great idea. With the advent of Creative Commons and MIT licenses, makers can get the attribution they deserve when their work forms the foundation of the next great business idea. The same idea now applies to open source hardware; makers can create and share their ideas for anyone to access under these same licenses, allowing anyone to create a great new product.
Entrepreneurs or makers looking to get started on a new project can get plenty of inspiration from open source hardware projects. The question is: where can you look for a community of designers that are willing to share high quality PCB designs as open source? Sure, PCB design software companies will release examples for you to use, but they don’t always match your application, and they require near total modification if you ever want to use these ideas as the basis for a new product. Your design software alone will not give you access to open source projects you can use for inspiration.
My First Open Source Hardware Project
Back in my days as an upstart musician (it wasn’t that long ago), I wanted to create my own Eurorack modules for a modular synthesizer. Within the electronic music industry, Eurorack is a de facto standard for connecting multiple audio synthesizers modules into a single package. There are plenty of open source hardware projects that can be easily adapted to a new project, allowing designers to create their own custom modules.
My original idea was to create a MIDI interface as a vertical 1U rack module for use in an existing cabinet. In the end, I ended up adapting a Raspberry Pi as my interface. The Raspberry Pi module is great for this as it already includes UART connectivity, which is already used in MIDI. Raspberry Pi also runs Linux, so it will naturally support Python, which just happens to be my favorite scripting language.
In designing the PCB, I got plenty of inspiration from schematics on the web, and I ultimately wanted to build a custom board to hold my MIDI-In and MIDI-Out connectors, as well as the supporting components to interface with my Raspberry Pi. Creating a MIDI interface is relatively easy; the MIDI-In connector needed to be isolated from the rest of the board, while the output could be connected directly to the GPIO output (Pin 8 on the Raspberry Pi) with a small resistor and a pair of inverters to clean up the digital output.
Eurorack – fully customizable synthesizers
Ultimately, I drew out the schematic by hand and used a prototyping through-hole board to attach all the components. For this type of low speed application, you can get away with using a prototyping board; I never had any problems getting this thing to interface with another MIDI device. There are plenty of other open source hardware projects you can implement with a Raspberry Pi.
Using a single board computer like a Raspberry Pi or a microcontroller board like an Arduino is a great way to get started prototyping a new device using desktop or online hardware design tools. In my opinion, I got lucky with my first pass at interfacing with a Raspberry Pi, thanks to its built in features and the fact that my board operated at low speed. If you need to build something that operates at higher speed or that you intend to have produced at a professional manufacturer, then it’s best to work with a design platform that can help you navigate important design rules and constraints as you navigate your project.
Sharing Open Source Hardware with Online Design Software
There are many online design platforms, but few will allow you to take an online design from start to finish without adapting at least one external program into your workflow. Any online design platform you use should mimic the desktop environment as close as possible. This includes exporting design data for use in other programs as needed, and offering an optional desktop application that allows users to access their online design tools alongside their desktop design applications.
Even fewer online design platforms provide the collaboration and sharing features that are the foundation of open source hardware. They also don’t provide a Google Docs style interface, so you’ll have no version control or automated backup features.
If you’re interested in sharing your own design, there are plenty of specialized platforms for releasing your project as open source. Even GitHub is being used for sharing open source hardware, especially since PCB design data is entirely digitized these days. With GitHub being primarily the domain of open source software rather than hardware, you might consider some other avenues for sharing your design. Check out electronics forums that focus on your particular application area. Communities on these forums might suggest some upgrades that will help you improve future versions of your project.
The browser-based PCB design platform from Upverter provides all the tools you need to build your next great open source hardware design and share it with the community. You’ll be able to find plenty of open source hardware projects on Upverter to help you get started. This online design platform includes all the standard features designers expect in electronics design software.