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”.

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.

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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.