Exciting Feedback!

Exciting Feedback!

Today I want to share some terrific feedback we have received recently about the tools we are building. First off I need to say that its incredibly exciting getting emails that we know people sent because they want to help us make this whole eco-system friendlier and easier to enter. So thanks for that! And second, that its just super cool when these emails come from people that we think are incredibly smart, and passionate.And when they write about things that we have thought about or feel strongly about, or even considered solving – well thats just super, super cool.

And thirdly, I want to talk about talking about more. I’ve been thinking and I’ve come to the conclusion that there really isn’t any harm in talking more candidly about some of our long term goals, but more importantly in talking about some of the bigger problems in the OSHW ecosystem – even problems we can’t fix yet. And the plug here is that they are the same thing, we want to position ourselves such that the big problems in the eco-system and our long terms goals are the same things.

So here goes! The following is a (slightly revised) to-do list from one of our recent feedback emails and I wholeheartedly agree with its content. So over the next few weeks I am going to be writing about our thoughts on Manufacturing, Modularity, Over-Optimization and Packaging. You’ll notice these are all very real world physical problems. Problems that we haven’t talked much about yet, and problems we don’t yet have solutions for. But we have ideas, and piles of ambition!

A Hardware Workflow Wishlist

  1. Prototype: I want to buy a collection of pre-made hardware component boards each satisfying a function. Examples are power supplies, processors, FPGAs, and video boards. I don’t really care how many separate little boards it takes, as long as it’s easy to clip them together so I can start building software for it. And I really don’t want to solder anything!
  2. Design: In your tools, let me draw a picture of the exact modules I plugged together in #1  and tweak them into my “final” configuration. I want to export a netlist, bill of materials, and board layout, all automatically.  This should be enough to take the design to a contract manufacturer.
  3. Package: Let me order a standardized case that will be able to contain my new board (either made up of the prototype boards, or as a custom pcb). Automatically figure out external connectors and do the cut-outs for me.
  4. Manufacturing: Give me a “print” button so to speak that will talk to the manufacturers for me, and you take a cut of the revenues.  Trust me, I don’t mind giving up a bit of money in order to not have to deal with the manufacturing headaches.

    Bonus: 
    Also doing assembly and packaging. You could event put it into a fancy printed box with paper materials that I specify (and maybe a CD).

    Bonus: 
    QA testing it, and shipping it out to my customers.
  5. Bundling: Handle aggregating pre-orders from random people on the Internet so we can all get a decent price, or find a way to do cheap one-of manufacturing.
  6. Optimize: At this point I’m either done, or I have a marketable product. You could help me transition to hiring people and optimizing my design, or you could scale your company and fill the voids here (like simulation, verification, and design-for-manufacturability).

What a great rundown eh? We have talked publicly a lot about #2 and have some pretty great solutions to it. In fact, I encourage you to head to our landing page and sign-up for the beta of our soon to be released circuit design tool. But over the coming weeks I’m going to give you some thoughts on the others in the list – we have some cool ideas to help fix some of these problems, and we have some great feedback on what other people think is broken. But there is also a discussion that should happen here – and I’d like to start it. As always I’d love any thoughts or feedback, email me: zak@upverter.com

Soldering Olympics

Back when I was working in Waterloo we would occasionally drop our scopes and soldering irons and head to the cafeteria for some much needed beer and cards. It was one of my favorite parts of working with those guys. There is nothing quite like shooting the shit with the boys over cards, drinking beer, and just hanging out. I loved it. Anyways, on more than a few of these nights we would get the (probably beer inspired) idea to host a Soldering Olympics. But we never did. Maybe because it was just the beer talking. Maybe because it really was a terrible idea. haha. But we never came through on it.And I’m both happy and jelous to announce that I have finally found someone else that did manage to pull it off – and its very cool (see the video above)!

I think should I ever get a chance to participate or host version 2 we should make just a couple changes… First, I always dreamed of a freestyle, artistic event, something thats more of a challenge than a time trial. Something like bridging solder between floating 402 resistors and pads, or soldering big parts over small footprints, or i dunno, something that looks just damn artistic under a microscope. Second, bigger irons! Don’t make me work with finger paint when I can use a brush! And third, for a time trial situation there needs to be more paste, or less through hole, or more microscopes, or something. I feel like there is a better test of speed, or that speed is the wrong metric… haha.

Anyways, I’m just glad someone bothered to actually go through with it. And it looks like it was a ton of fun. I encourage anyone and everyone interested in electronics to appreciate the beauty in good soldering and the fun in being able to build electronics. And to anyone hosting version 2 before I do – I want an invite!!

OSHW: Whats Missing?

  • There are just as many students attending electrical engineering or technologist programs as software engineering programs.
  • We are surrounded by more electronics than software, because software requires electronics, while lots of electronics exist on their own.
  • People seem content to buy cellphones but build their own web browsers.
  • There are maybe a few hundred OSHW projects, yet hundreds of thousands if not millions of FOSS projects (Github alone claims 1.5 million repos).
  • How many people are doing OSHW? Versus the number doing FOSS?
  • Electronics is far older and tends to be far more open than software. You can take apart a toaster with a screwdriver, just try taking a screwdriver to Microsoft Word…
  • Electronics had a hacker boom once during the Radio Shack days, long before FOSS ever took off. Why did it end? Why didn’t it go viral? What was missing?
  • FOSS hasn’t always existed. Prior to the mid 90’s there were almost zero open source software projects.

So whats missing? Whats wrong the the open source hardware guys? Why no mecca of sharing? No open cellphones*? Why doesn’t DDWRT run on open hardware? Why haven’t you solved more of the problems in your life with a soldering iron? I don’t have perfect answers to any of these questions, or even good answers really. But we have noticed a spark. There are people working hard to create a great and powerful OSHW community. The hackers with soldering irons want an ecosystem and a community. They want to collaborate and share and grow exactly like FOSS has. And that’s the reason why we are here. At Upverter we are trying to breathe life into the movement and give those hackers what they need to become a great and powerful force of knowledge, sharing and cool hardware. We are betting pretty big on OSHW becoming huge and as a result we spend a lot of time talking about whats missing. And here is the best answer that I’ve got.

  • Sharing. There is no good way to share schematics, parts lists, symbols, decals, hookup instructions, or PCB files. Basically everyone is on their own and starting from scratch. How do you build on each other if you don’t know what anyone else has done?
  • In-Band Communication. This is akin to commit messages in software land. Why did Joe change a resistor? There is no good way to document why I’m rewiring a chip. Or document that I’m doing a bug fix. And there is no history either, you have to keep everything in your head, always. Just looking at a schematic it isn’t always clear why things have been done in a certain way – blocking people from using each others work.
  • Collaboration & Merging. Its virtually impossible to work together with another user on a big design. In software land you just merge textual changes together, but in hardware there is no such thing as diffing, merging, or real-time collaboration. This makes it impossible for two people to work together on a design, which makes it nearly impossible to build a big design.
  • Focal Point. Its not really a technical requirement, and lots of other websites have attempted to become this, but they all seem to devolve because they are missing a connection to the issues above. Back when FOSS was very young people shared code on their personal websites. But then SourceForge came along and it seemed to focus the community and the effort; OSHW needs a SourceForge.

That might be it. Its not a big list, and there are probably lots of social and learning curve problems that will come up along the way. But really, I think if there was available software satisfying the list above we would be looking at a very different OSHW landscape. At Upverter we are focused on filling these voids, but despite talking with hundreds of you we aren’t entirely sure what you want. To be honest we don’t think you know what you want either, so we are taking our best guess. BUT (and this is a big one!) if you do know what you want, or have any feedback or opinions on the list above, please by all means contact us. We truly want to build whats best for the OSHW community, what you need, what you want, and whatever is stopping you from going viral.

OSHW: Where to Start, and How to Participate

So you read my post about OSHW, you’re super excited to do some hardware of your own, but have absolutely no clue where to start. I get that! We hear about that all the time, and I have some really simple stuff to get you started. First thing is first, the excitement and interest is great. At the end of the day your want to learn, and to better yourself is the important part. Even if all you do your first day on the job is light up an LED, i promise it will be cool, and as you get deeper its that interest that will keep you going through the really gross bugs. If you’re already elbows deep in a project and looking for pointers read down a bit, I try to explain the tools you need and how to work with and without them. For everyone else here is my advice for where to start…

Tools

I would really recommend taking a look at Lady Ada’s equipment list as a starting point for what you’re gonna need. The following is my list of comments.

Soldering iron

You just need one for now. Get the most watts you can reasonably afford, but there is nothing wrong with a $25 iron. I used to have one of the Metcals and I loved it (it was also my job to solder for days on end), but unless you are trying to find a place to spend your millions you don’t need one.

Multimeter

If you can afford an auto ranging one get it. I used to bang my head against the wall picking ranges, which is just a pain.

Power Source

My advice would be (and please don’t die or sue me) to take a 12V or smaller wallwart for some old thing that you no longer have and cut the connector off. 12V and below can’t kill you, so you should be safe, and you’re gonna love not having batteries to fool around with.

Tronix

Do you need a scope? a logic analyzer? Universal counter? Variable dc supply? etc, etc, etc. While all very, very cool, my answer is a resounding no. All of these tools make your life easier when trying to solve certain problems. And I really do want you to stick around electronics long enough that you collect all of these tools, but start small. Start with what you need, and when you hit a problem that requires a scope to solve beg, borrow and steal one, and only when you need to – pony up and buy one. I will change my story if someone ever builds a cheap usb accessible display-less scope, or logic analyzer, but for now I say skip it.

Bits n’ Pieces

So, you have some tools and you have parts for an idea. But you are a hacker, and hackers need to hack. So here are some suggestions for the bits n’ pieces to keep around for maximum hack-ability.  I’d start with something like thesparkfun beginners kit. The Make beginner electronics kits also look decent, albeit more expensive, kit1 & kit2. Its totally cool to put together your own kit too, here are my suggestions.

Resistors & Caps

For resistors you need a range of values from 20R up to 1M (20 ohms to 1 mega-ohm). You can have big spread in the high values, so your density should be best between a couple hundred and tens of thousands (250R – 20K). For capacitors you again need a range of values from 10pF to 100uF.

The smaller values will need to be ceramic while the bigger values will need to be electrolytic, but don’t get too hung up on any of this. The important part is that you have a starting point, you will still find yourself needing particular parts, for particular problems as time goes on.

Diodes & Transistors

While super cool and I recommend having a few lying around (1N4148 Diode, 1N4001 Diode, 2N3906 PNP Transistor, 2N3904 NPN Transistor) your need for diodes and transistors will largely be driven by your project. With one exception – LEDs. Because you always need a couple LEDs kicking around.

Others

You’re gonna want a few switches, some wire, and maybe a 7-segment. Headers and pots are useful too. But really don’t worry too much about these. This pile is gonna grow as you hack and collect your stash of bits.

What to Hack on?

So, you’ve got the bare essentials and are looking for a project. My advice would be to start by looking at something like the Spinnerette or the Arduino. Here is a link to a top-40 list of Arduino projects which might give you some inspiration.

Sensors are cool
Robots are cool. Anything wireless, or distributed, or web-connected is cool. But hell even the simple stuff like multi-color leds (2) and making sounds is cool.

How to Use the Tools?

Never done any of this before? No biggie! Here are some videos and tutorials on using the tools – and don’t worry if you mess up, in the end its all about the learning experience and the fun you have hacking away.

Zak’s OSHW Plug

OSHW is made great by the people, the energy and the collaboration in this community. However big or small your project please share it. Post pictures, make a video, share the schematics, give a part list, anythingeverything. Teach others what you learned, and help others to get involved. Together lets make this a great place to learn and hang-out.

Holidays and Such

So, while we don’t get much of a holiday here at Upverter (startup = hacking 110% of the time) we do want to wish you all a happy one! We are furiously working on a couple of deadlines right now which is disrupting the blog a wee bit. So for this week that’s pretty much it! I just wanted to say Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, and stay tuned – 2011 is gonna be a big year for us.

Building an OSHW Community

Upverter wants to be a place that will allow the free exchange information, grow the open source hardware community and make the creation of new hardware less painful. One of the ways that we are going to do that is build a community. There are four facets that we think are important to facilitate this, and here they are.

Projects

There isn’t a good way for people to collaborate on OSHW projects. In the software community there are sites like Git hub and SourceForge. While hardware does not fit into the same mold, we believe that we can create a space that will allow people to share ideas and designs in a similar way.

Q&A

As with every discipline, hardware has its own rich and unique lexicon associated with it. These include specific language, block diagrams, systematics and mathematical equations. We are going to facilitate the use of this kind of information by integrating our tool into the community.

Parts Library

Have you ever tried to find how other people use a part? Want to find a good DC to DC converter? Well this is where you will be able to find it. We are putting together a kick ass parts library, and we want to share it with you. We will be making it easier for you to find the parts that you are looking for and provide some examples of how that the part is being used.

How To

Have you always wanted to make a digital clock that displayed in binary? Cool, so does Steve. Our How To section will be the place to find this and much more. With step by step instructions, and a parts list to boot we will have you reading 1’s and 0’s in no time.

Why We Can Do it Better?

That is the pride and joy of Upverter. We can do it better because we have a kick ass web based EDA tool. It can be used to described ideas better than anywhere else. We are going to bring the electrical engineering lexicon to the web so that everyone can troubleshoot together, show off cool project and kick ass hacks. We can do it better because we are bringing a new element to the table, we are adding a way to relay information.

Startup Reading List

Read? What are you crazy? We’ve got work to do!!!

That sounds a little like me harassing the troops, but don’t worry I’m smiling! Haha. As a bit of lite and fluffy Christmas reading I thought I would diverge from my hardware stories and my OSHW rant to share a bit of startup wisdom. This is the as-official-as-it-gets Upverter Startup Reading List. Back before we started Upverter there was a fairly enormous Google Wave that for a couple months seemed to be growing exponentially. It was basically a dumping ground where we all put our personal reading lists and then any new finds we stumbled across. Maybe because there was a lifetime worth of reading on it, or maybe because we had exhausted the ISBN index, I’m not quite sure, but the list eventually stopped growing.

Personally I’m maybe 1/10 through the list, Steve is probably close to half way, and Mike is a lost cause, haha. But either way, I wanted to share our favorites from the monster list. The stuff we think you absolutely need to read if you ever decide to do the startup thing. The list is a little software oriented, and that’s really just because we are building a startup that builds software, and so that’s a focus for us; but you could absolutely trim the software titles and kick-ass with your revolutionary pet rock business!

Upverter Must Read List:

Basically you’re off the team if you haven’t read these.

  • Code Complete, Second Edition This book is on more programmer book lists than should be fair. Its a must.
  • Rapid Development Right up there with Code Complete, this one normally seems to rank second on the book lists. Again a software book. Also a must.
  • The Pragmatic Programmer Don’t fix something that isn’t broken, this book often scores around 3rd. Again a software book. Also a must.
  • Peopleware This book is probably the most important management book of all time. Ever. If you ever have to work with another human being, ever, you should read this book.
  • The Mythical Man Month This book goes hand in hand with Peopleware. If you ever, in your working life, will have to make a schedule – read this book.
  • Don’t Make Me Think This book is down to earth usability. If anyone ever has to use something you build – this will explain why they hate it or get lost inside.
  • The Art of the Start This book is pitched as for anyone starting anything. And thats a pretty good take on it!
  • The Tipping Point Epidemics, viruses and human behavior. Another great read!

Upverter Reading in Progress:

The books on our kindles and iPads at this very moment.

Upverter Next in the Queue:

If I ever make it there, I have to conquer these next…