Happy Holiday Contest

It is cold outside, at least up here in Canada, Hanukkah is underway and Christmas is just around the corner!  So we want to manufacture (for you) some of the most fun or interesting holiday designs that are made in Upverter!  We will share the winning designs in a couple of weeks.

What are we looking for?  Anything that is holiday or winter related! Something in the shape of a snowflake (thanks Zak), Christmas trees, menorahs, or anything else that gets you into the spirit.  Here is Zak’s amazing snowflake design, I can practically feel the winter breeze.

Snowflake pcb layout

Special Snowflake Design link

How do you participate and win?

  1. Design a holiday themed design in Upverter.
  2. Make the design Public (you should give it a good description too).
  3. Send support@upverter.com an email with a link to the project and what it is. No later than Friday December 14th.
    • Bonus points for design notes on how you designed it, and why you picked your components!
  4. We will pick some number of amazing winners, get those designs manufactured and send the winners their design, manufactured.

I can’t wait to see the designs!

Happy holidays and have fun designing!


High-End Electro-Mechanical Watch PCB Design using Upverter

I have been designing circuits for the last 20 years. As a hobbyist, employee, consultant and independent designer under the brand name Division Furtive. For various reasons, I was often forced to shift from one EDA tool to another. At the end of the day, I think being a good circuit designer mean being able to do the job with any tool available. This context trained me to always be on the lookout for the best EDA tool available. For Division Furtive’s fourth watch, Type 77, I decided to try Upverter because:
– it was free
– I really liked the idea of an online tool with the design residing on the server*
– it is made by a fellow Canadian start-up
*Having to return to old software, either uninstalled or delicensed, is a massive pain. For a project I went as far as storing a laptop with project files and software in case I needed to do edit in the future. Only needing a browser to work on a circuit is a new paradigm for me and I really like it.
The design objective was to make an electro-mechanical watch (moving minute disc inside back-lit hour ring). It would have customizable RGB color (to match your clothing or other things such as your motorcycle) using a built-in optical color sensor at the press of a button. The three GIFs below highlight the watch’s biggest features. The complete promo video (including 3 side-kick devices) can be viewed here.
Being a footprint-freak, I really enjoy investing time early on in the project to devise a good looking and consistent library. Upverter’s built-in libraries and concierge service made this even more enjoyable.
Doing the schematic, I was impressed by the responsiveness and robustness of the user interface. Having used various tools in the past, I mostly fear netlist errors introduced by the tool itself (e.g.: moving a part that end up having distinct nets tied together). Very rapidly I was up and running with a very high level of confidence in the tool.
Layout work was also very reassuring. The user interface is well done, and it is incredible how Upverter is ultra responsive considering it is an online tool (I usually use an average speed internet connection). It works beautifully. Something I guess you only get with new software written from scratch. Most older (and more expensive) software is plagued with annoying bugs that you just learn to live with (the sum of decades of patches). My level of tool-oriented frustration dropped to an all-time low using Upverter and being happy while working really sold me to the tool. By itself, the fact that changes done in schematic are automatically updated in layout without having to manually export a netlist improved my design experience drastically.
Going to production was seamless. Gerber files export and supporting files creation is simple. As a sanity check, I always visualize the gerber files with an independent file viewer just to make sure to avoid sending nonsense to the factory. I used MyRO PCB for manufacturing and hand assembled the first boards as I always do. For the record, the Type 77 PCB did not need any edit and the first board ended up being the working prototype!
In the end, I was having so much fun designing the Type 77 watch with Upverter that I did not invest nearly as much time as I should have in marketing (while trying to fly solo without Kickstarter at the same time). Even if this was the sleekest Division Furtive watch ever designed, the higher price point made it a tough sale to my current customer base. I ended putting the old saying “quit while you are ahead” in practice and decided it was wiser to simply go back to consulting. At this regard, if you even need design assistance (I also do 3D modeling), you can find me at www.design-game.com



As you take on or create projects, some will be easy and some will be difficult. Some will be one-offs and others will need to be made at scale. In this write-up, we will be exploring my biggest project to date, Distributed Symphony, and how the microcontroller at its core was built in a browser.

Header image

Step 1: The Opportunity

The Distributed Symphony is the largest and most complex project I have pulled off. Once a year I have the unique opportunity to bring a fun experience to a corporate offsite for an audience of 600 executives. For the past few installments, the “fun” has been packaged as a design challenge. The prompt for the first iteration was to build a ball machine that sends a ball on its path for exactly two seconds. Each successive year had an increasing complexity and technical presence. This year I decided it was time to architect an experience that was awe inspiring.



Step 2: Distributed Symphony

The project consisted of one hundred and twenty kits containing all the ingredients needed for a team of five to create a percussive instrument. Each kit included the following items.

  • Connected Micro-controller
  • Solenoid Ball Dropper
  • Instrumented resonator from a Glockenspiel Trigger button
  • Ten Wooden Balls
  • Building materials
  • Artistic elements

Central to this project was the micro-controller. Adding logic and cloud connectivity was intended to enhance the experience and not get in the way. The controller board had considerable functionality exposed in the simplest way possible. Resistor values, power concerns, diodes and capacitors were baked into the board design so that the participants were free to focus on the challenge and not the technology.


Step 3: Take Chances

This project presented the opportunity to build a swarm of custom SMT microcontroller boards. This was new to me but seemed like something worth learning and a major challenge. To design the boards I used Upverter. It is a very cool browser based end to end solution for PCB design and production. Once you get used to finding components in their library, it is easy to use. The boards were based around the very capable ESP32 micro controller. The boards were designed to outlast this project as they were marked for donation to help children learn to code and design hardware. Each board has the following features:

  • ESP32 Micro Controller – Wifi and Bluetooth Capable Two PWM Solenoid/Motor headers
  • Four Grounded 3.3V GPIO headers
  • Two Neopixel Strip Drivers
  • Two Capacitive Touch Pads and Optional Headers Onboard LCD Display
  • Onboard Single Neopixel
  • Onboard USB to UART Programmer –
  • 5V Power Bus 3V power Bus

The project only used a single Solenoid Driver, the LCD Display, onboard Neopixel and three of the GPIO headers. The additional functionality has since been used as part of hands on teaching workshops for kids.

Take Chances


Step 4: Plan It Out

The first step in making your custom PCBs is to plan it out. When it comes to hardware design, that means creating your schematic. I used my breadboard to design each section of the total project. As each circuit started working, I carefully translated it into the Upverter Schematic tool. After that I cleared the breadboard and got to work on the next section until the controller board was logically complete.


Step 5: Lay It Out

The next step in hardware production is the PCB layout. This was way more fun than I thought it was going to be, it was like playing SimCity with electricity. The Upverter layout tool is pretty cool and fun to use. The more I worked with it, the more I polished the design and went for style points wherever possible. It is your job to add wires between on the components. There are green lines that highlight connections not traced with copper. The most exciting part of PCB layout is the ability skip ground traces. All they have to do is touch the bottom layer and they are grounded, easy! While we are talking about the bottom layer, that is another thing of beauty. If you have a lot of traces getting getting in the way, all you need to do is drop to the bottom layer, go around the traffic and pop back up on the other side.

Lay It Out

Step 6: Make It Real

Once you go to production, things get real and really expensive. Find a production house you feel comfortable with or one that someone you know has used before. You will be sending them files to create your boards and optionally doing the full assembly. The bulk of the cost is in buying the parts and assembly. Since this project required many units as well as using a surface mount components, I opted for the production house to do the assembly.

Upverter has download section where you can generate the files you need to handoff to production. To help save some back and forth, here is the list of files I exported:

  • Gerber Files
  • NC Drill (Excellon)
  • XYRS (Pick and Place)
  • Bill of Materials

Be ready to do one or two smaller test runs before sending out your big order. My design went to two small production runs each with errors before the big one hundred and thirty piece order. I padded the order by ten just incase some of the boards were produced with errors. As you can see in the second image, I had to use green jumper wires to fix the boards from one of the earlier production runs. That’s it, you are now the proud owner of 5 to 50,000 custom controller boards.


Step 7: The Reveal

This was the bittersweet ending to a long long road. The kits were distributed and prompt was given. The teams set out to build a percussive instrument that could reliably drop a ball onto the resonator with each button press. As the build went on, we revealed that the projects were cloud connected and had corresponding mobile dashboards. The teams used the mobile dashboard to play patterns into their devices. “Save and a Haircut” was now the goal. Once the bulk of the teams were able to play “Shave an a Haircut”, we were ready for the recital.

Everyone loaded their ball hoppers and stepped back. We used our administrative console to calculate individual machine offsets and play Guns and Roses as well as some Bach across all the machines. The room filled with music and it was a success.

Keep building and don’t let custom PCB projects get in your way. They are totally doable and there is a whole world of support out there.


DS – SweetC by Phando


DS – Bach by Phando

Sausage Factory – Sound check

Hi everyone,

It’s been a few weeks with a lot going on, not the least of which are some neat Halloween electronics projects.

But as many know I’ve been working on my own start-to-finish build of a high gain overdrive guitar pedal with a graphic EQ section called “sausage factory”. Some folks have told me I should probably call it something different, but for the record the idea did come to me while enjoying a bratwurst with sauerkraut, and it occurred to me a high gain pedal is a bit like a meat grinder… hence the name.

Anyway, a few friends emailed me after my first blog about the project and requested a sound demo. I didn’t have the actual boards from the fab at the time, let alone the assembled prototypes, but now thanks to Altium’s corporate management I have a small lab space, and I’ve been able to get together the parts and do this!

In my last blog post I showed part of the assembly process – using a laser cut solder paste stencil and hand pick-and-place actually didn’t take too long.

In the process however I discovered I had one incorrect footprint – so I did have to cut a couple of traces around the 9V DC input jack and rewire those.

I also found one design flaw (a very minor but nonethelese important one) in the EQ circuit which I have since been able to easily fix with the addition of a single resistor.

In this process I discovered the neat “Notes and Issues” feature in Upverter (CircuitMaker has something very similar called “Comments”) where I can basically highlight a part of the schematic or PCB and write a task, assigned to a specific user, with a description of the change needed. These all go into the issues list and as I address those for the final design revision I check them off:

This was developed for team collaboration on designs, but it is equally useful for an individual designer like me, just to keep a list of changes I need to make when I have time to get back to the next rev. Also, this is useful because I’ll keep the notes and the design as-is while assembling the first 5 prototypes, which I’ll hand modify like the first so as not to waste the PCBs and paste stencil. Once those are together I’ll go ahead and modify the design and check off the issues as done.

Watch this video for the initial sound test, and discovery of the EQ section bug.

Please subscribe, like, share and comment on this video! I need your support to make this better and make more project and technical walk-throughs like this.

I’d like to even do this with you! If you have a cool design and want to share and do a video interview, please email me and we’ll arrange it!

ben dot jordan at altium dot com.

And final PostScript: Here’s a track I was working on after a few more small mods to the Sausage Factory – my take on a classic 80’s pop song:

Spooky Halloween Design Inspiration

Happy Halloween!

To celebrate we have 3 amazing halloween design contest winning designs to bring the feeling of ghosts and pumpkins for you electronics entertainment.

  1. HalloweenGhost by designgameinc

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 1.10.04 PM.png

From the README:

“This creepy PCB has red LED eyes and eerie sound comes out of its slotted mouth (loudspeaker is on the bottom side). The sound is generated by an ATMega32 MCU. Any wave file can be converted to 8 kHz samples and inserted into the code (thanks to Rejith, see http://avrpcm.blogspot.com/2010/11/playing-8-bit-pcm-using-any-avr.html?m=1 for more details about MCU firmware). The power is provided via a microUSB connector (no data lines, just power) and will therefore start to spook as soon as connected to any USB port (might also possess the device at the other end of the cable, use at your own risks). The ATMega32 can be programmed using the ICP connector. All the parts are on the bottom side and only the LEDs on the top side. Note the ghost’s pupils are the LEDs cathode mark. Happy Halloween!”


2. Halloween LED scary pumpkin by haroldocalvo

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 1.13.30 PM.png

“Halloween LED scary pumpkin”

The eye’s and mouth light up in this scary pumpkin!

3. Halloween Pumpkin LEDs by eugene.kim.pcb

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 1.19.47 PM.png

Halloween IoT Pumpkin!  This  one uses the Texas Instruments CC3220MODSF12MOBR to connect and control the LEDs on this Pumpkin.  Check it out!

Thank for all the halloween submissions.

Have a great halloween!


Halloween is Coming to Haunt You

Halloween is just around the corner, and to celebrate Upverter is giving away cold hard cash (well, some digital form of it, but that sounds less cool) to 3 of the most fun or interesting Halloween designs that are made in Upverter!  We will share the winning designs on Halloween.

What are we looking for?  Well anything that is Halloween-related, something that is in the shape of  pumpkins, ghosts or ghouls, or something that is built into you costume. Here are 2 examples of halloween designs. The first is a pumpkin shaped led board, with what looks like a really happy pumpkin, I am hoping to get a scary looking one … hint hint … but could not find one :(.  

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 3.50.34 PM

Pumpkin design link

The second is a lighting board for a halloween costume; build it into your costume to be the life of the party.

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 3.53.05 PM.png

Costume design link

How do you participate and win?

  1. Design a halloween themed design in Upverter.
  2. Make the design Public, you should give it a good description.
  3. Send support@upverter.com and email with a link to the project and what it is. No later than Sunday October 28th.
    • Bonus points for pictures of the made design or costume with the design in it!
  4. We will pick 3 winners (at my sole discretion) and send the winners $100 each.

I can’t wait to see the designs!

Happy halloween and have fun designing!


Sausage Factory Project Update – SMD Reflow (or, 10 steps to a nice prototyping experience)

Well, many of my friends in the Upverter and CircuitMaker world have requested more details about my first project start to finish done in Upverter.

So here’s a quick update. Since I finally got a corner of our office and was given the blessing to use it for making stuff, and since I’ve finally got all the parts, I can show the next phase of the project.

But talk about a wait!! The slider pots took 12 weeks to arrive! I should have checked the supply chain for them in Octopart before designing them into my pedal!

I’m still not ready for final testing yet – stay tuned, but at least here’s an update on my progress with hand assembly of the prototype.

Now, you may not have access to a desktop reflow oven, but if you can afford to get one of the cheaper units, or build one using a toaster oven, then I highly recommend the investment. Believe me, you’re worth the time it saves when building stuff with SMT devices. Even hand pick and place is not too painful once you’re organized – as my video demonstrates here.

But this process, though you may spend a few hours on it, is so much better and faster than it used to be. For a good flow, like what I did in the video, here’s what I recommend to anyone building prototype quantities:

      1. Find a decent workspace with enough bench area to spread out your project. Mine is about 15 ft2 but you don’t need that much, 7-10 ft2 should do the job.
      2. Get a compact desktop reflow oven, or build one, or use the hot plate method if you’re doing SMT parts just on one side of the PCB.
      3. Get some anti-static component trays, with enough 2 in2 compartments to hold your “popcorn components”.
      4. From your Bill of Materials, print out the manufacturer and reference designator columns, and cut them out as labels for each component bin or compartment.
      5. When ordering parts from DigiKey, Mouser, Arrow, or whomever, make sure that you add your reference designators to each component line item so when they ship to you, each bag, tube or tray holding the parts is labeled with the reference designator.
      6. One by one sort the components into their labeled compartments in the quantity needed for your production run.
      7. Print out the top (and bottom) assembly drawings on large (A3 or 11×17) format paper and stick them to the wall in front of your assembly area. I find it helpful to also print out the schematics in case I need to verify a part against the engineered design.
      8. Order the solder paste stencil with your boards, or get them from a good stencil shop such as OSH Stencils. If you have access to a CNC or laser cutter and you know how, you can make them yourself from polyimide or acrylic film. Usually they should be very thin! No more than 1-2 Mils. Make a jig with other scrap PCB material for aligning the stencil over your project PCB. Don’t try to use the stencil without this scrap board jig! If you do, you’ll bend it and the holes will not align correctly with your board.
      9. Pick and place the parts with tweezers or if you have one, a vacuum nozzle. Pay careful attention to the orientation of polarized capacitors, diodes, transistors and ICs. The magic blue smoke can’t be put back in if you insert them wrong!
      10. Carefully put the board into your reflow oven, or on the hotplate. If you can control the temperature you need to – this is the difficulty with using the hotplate approach, you have to watch it closely and remove the heat once you see the solder fillets fully formed. Excessive heat will damage devices and your board may be DOA if you’re not careful. If you have an oven, select a solder heating profile that is suitable for the paste you’re using. Lead free pastes need a higher temperature than tin-lead pastes.


Finish up by hand-soldering any through-hole parts you may have, then your board is ready for testing!