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Get ready for the open hardware revolution
Like it or not, PCBs might go the way of the dinosaur and be replaced by more complicated photonic or electronic-photonic integrated circuits (EPICs) and electro-optics systems. Designers and researchers that want to get in on the ground floor of this groundbreaking new technology now have access to online design resources that used to be available only to the wealthiest semiconductor companies or were confined to research groups with huge budgets.
Why worry about this now? Entrepreneurs, researchers, students, and individual makers that want to help drive technological change can complement traditional PCBs with these new capabilities thanks to a number of online design tools. These tools are built to be accessible to nearly anyone with a relatively small budget with the goal of supporting open hardware and software. This levels the playing field and provides anyone an opportunity to experiment with new ideas, or to create the next revolutionary new technology.
Open Source Design Platforms that Support Open Hardware
Researchers, entrepreneurs, students, and electronics designers don’t always have massive budgets, but they may have great ideas that push the limits of new technology. Today, online design, simulation, and fabrication tools are available to help you build a new electronic or electro-optic system from scratch. You’ll even have access to manufacturing capabilities for your device through some of these platforms. Using these platforms is a great way to create prototypes as part of an experiment, or to fabricate a larger run of finished products.
The open hardware and open source electronics design platforms that are currently available are not limited to PCB design. There are a number of forward-thinking organizations that have created open-source platforms that facilitate the creation of ICs and EPICs. You can then share your open hardware designs and your PCB through any number of online venues. The platforms I’ll present here provide many capabilities that are normally found in very expensive desktop design platforms.
This allows you to get your foot in the door and start creating new technology on a budget. If you’re interested in designing and experimenting with new electronics projects and electro-optical systems, take a look at these online design platforms.
IPKISS for Photonic Component Design
The IPKISS photonics design platform is built in Python and is available as an open source repository. Although originally built for designing photonics circuits, this platform can be used to quickly generate GDSII files that include structures for interfacing with electronic light sources and detectors. The fact that the platform is built in Python and is open-source allows anyone to extend the capabilities into new areas. You can get the complete source code for IPKISS from GitHub. The IPKISS website also includes some useful examples to help you get started. If you search GitHub for photonics design, you’ll find plenty of other open source design and simulation platforms available for download.
An example ring resonator in IPKISS (Photo Credit)
Here we have another open source design platform written in Python. You can download an installer directly from Nazca. The platform was designed for EPICs and includes a number of useful tutorials to help you get started creating your first EPIC. The integrated functionality for creating electronic leads directly on a wafer makes this platform perfect for creating photonic components that will appear on a PCB. The foundry project from JePPIX also integrates with the Nazca platform, allowing you to quickly produce chips from your design when you are ready to assemble a prototype.
NUSOD Simulation Repository
The NUSOD repository contains plenty of free downloads for simulating microelectronic, opto-electronic, and photonic devices. This is a great way to validate your component design as some of these programs will read design data directly from your GDSII files. This helps you craft a unified workflow for photonics design. If you are truly ambitious, you can even integrate this open source software with the aforementioned design platforms into a unified open hardware platform for opto-electronics design.
With these platforms, you can quickly take your design directly to a foundry
Online PCB Design with Upverter®
Most online PCB design platforms lack one or more critical features, forcing you to search for a compatible piece of software to supplement your workflow and perform critical design tasks. Upverter is arguably the best platform for an idea for a new device all the way through to manufacturing. This goes beyond simply prototyping a board; you can create designs that can be fabricated as finished products with this design platform. All the tools you need are available in a browser-based interface or in an optional desktop application.
Once you’ve created and simulated your component in one of the above platforms, you can send it to a photonics foundry to fabricate the device at the wafer scale and package it as a finished component. You can then integrate it into your PCB by creating a new component within Upverter. This allows you to create a schematic symbol and a PCB footprint for your new component. You can then include this component in your design as you would any other component. You won’t have to fabricate a large number of components. Instead, you can participate in a multi-project wafer (MPW) run and have just a few components manufactured.
The browser-based interface in Upverter includes sharing and forking features, allowing designers to make their ideas accessible to anyone as open hardware. You can also custom design your PCB to integrate traditional electronics capabilities with new technology like EPICs. If you use other desktop design tools, you can also quickly import your existing design data into Upverter’s online design platform, or you can also export your design data from Upverter into a compatible file format and start using it in your desktop design tools.
The online PCB design environment from Upverter provides anyone the tools they need to take their ideas from a drawing on paper to a working product. When combined with the other advanced tools listed above, designers have the capabilities to create advanced electronic and opto-electronic devices for any application. Designers on Upverter have made a plethora of working designs freely available as open hardware projects, and Upverter continuously updates the platform with new features and capabilities that are demanded by the community.