I wandered over to the TI booth at the Embedded Systems Conference to check out the Beaglebone and the MSP430 Launchpad. We haven’t built any Beaglebones yet, but a few years back we took the Open source Beagleboard files and built up a couple to show our package-on-package (PoP) workmanship. The Beaglebone doesn’t use PoP, but it is open source. As are the “Capes.” They call their expansion cards capes. I get a vision of Underdog when I hear that name.

What caught my eye was their selection of Capes available now.
All of those are open source. They provide functionality such as displays, battery power, CAN, prototyping and more.

The other product I looked at was the MSP430 Launchpad. I’ve been getting to know the launchpad myself and wanted to see what’s new with it. 0328121213The unit shown here has a DSP and a little display driven by the MSP430. It’s a MP3 player with the purpose of introducing the DSP and MSP430 / DSP combination.

TI is doing an amazing job of making evaluation of its chips easy and inexpensive. I’ve seen a few other companies providing more complete and less expensive than traditional dev boards as well. NXP with their LPC series to name one. It’s a good idea and a good trend as far as I’m concerned.

Duane Benson
Robots good. Neurotic thermonuclear devices bad.


Open Source: What Is It Good For?

I’ve written about open source hardware (OSHW) a few times before. Like this and this. I’ve understood open source software for quite some time and over the past few years have been starting to get what open source hardware is all about. It is different than open source software.

With software, your tangible product is essentially intangible. Your acquisition and distribution of an open source project can be virtually free. Not so with hardware. Someone has to physically build something, which costs time and money in parts and labor. Really though, all that means is the proliferation of an open source hardware product just takes a little longer. If you look at it as the design being open source more than the actual product, then it gets to be more and more similar to software.

While open source software has moved into real business, hardware is still more closely associated with the hobbyist community. That is changing though. TI’s Beagleboard is serious stuff from a serious company. Some of the hobbyist catering OSHW companies are growing to or have grown to the point of being serious businesses (Adafruit, Sparkfun).

This all begs the question: “What is open source hardware good for?” Let’s divide and conquer. Or, at least, divide and explain.

  • What does it do for innovation?

History is rife with stories of great inventions that were not commercially successful because the inventor was a good inventor but was a lousy business person, didn’t have access to funding or just didn’t have the drive to build, promote and sell the product.

With OSHW, companies that do have the drive, funding and know-how can pick up an open source project from a developer that doesn’t.  There are none of the IP concerns that sometimes keep big companies from taking on product from independent inventors. Great products that otherwise would stay hidden can make it out in the world.

Some OSHW companies, like Adafruit, compensate the designers whose product they sell. No marketing or selling expense for the designer and yet money comes in to them. Much reduced design expense for the seller, yet they can build a business.

  • What does it do for small companies?

It’s another way to jump-start design or production of products that will fund the small business. It can reduce the barriers to entry. People who are good at designing but not so good at selling can still earn money. People who are not so good at designing but good at selling can earn a living. People who are good at both designing and selling — they have the best of both worlds and can earn a living. Products that would otherwise stay in obscurity can more easily make it to the world.

  • What can it do for big companies?

The answer to this question has been the longest in coming, but there are more and more answers showing up. Take the Beagleboard from Texas Instruments. It got a new processor (the OMAP) out into the hands of their customers quickly. It was a great promotional tool. The software side of an organization could get started with the processor without having to wait for the hardware folks to design, layout and build the hardware. The hardware folks could see how the part and its accessories work in real life.

OMAP users could get a jump-start on complex tasks like escape routing. The manufacturing folks could get some insight and practice into assembling the package on package processor / memory combination. design cycles are short enough as it is. Companies that want to use the TI processor get professionally designed short-cuts. TI gets to sell more processors quicker. Everyone wins.

Duane Benson
It doesn’t mean destruction

Extra-Fine Pitch BGA Pads

One of the annoyances of the world of trade secrets and proprietariness is that we can’t all learn from each others’ experiences. That is important, and even generally necessary, in a competitive world. If you put in some hard work, you should get the first right to profit from it. Otherwise what incentive would you have to put in that hard work?

There are times, however, when it would be helpful for the industry or the economy in general if we can all learn from someone else’s challenges. Times when, for example, the entire auto industry and therefor the safety of the general public would benefit if all companies shared what they have learned about the reliability of electronic throttle systems.

Bb Good SMD pads Here’s another chance for open source hardware to shine. Take the Beagleboard. The TI folks who designed it pushed technology in a number of areas and by presenting what they have created as open source, we can all benefit from it. Even stepping outside of the great work in the schematic, they have done great service in the areas of manufacturing complex devices as well.

A while back, I wrote about soldermask defined (SMD pads) vs non-soldermask defined (NSMD) pads on 0.4 mm pitch BGAs. The basic idea is that while with most Bb Bad NSMD pads BGAs, you want NSMD pads for better mechanical strength, with the really small BGAs, like the 0.4 mm pitch OMAP processor, you want SMD pads to prevent shorts.

The messages that the Beagleboard team learned here are, first, it’s true that you want SMD pads and second, make sure that your PCB fab house follows your instructions in that regard.

Many fab houses have their own rules and will set the soldermask up based on what they feel is best. They may have never used your part though. Make sure the board house does what you need. By insisting on closing up the soldermask, the Beagleboard team went from 90% failure with the NSMD pads to 96% good and no BGA shorts with the SMD pads. (This info and the photos come from the Beagleboard ESC presentation by Gerald Coley.)

Duane Benson
The worms do.

Beagleboard Innovation

Open source hardware makes me happy. Open source has been around in the software world for a long time, but it’s still fairly new in the hardware dimension. I think 2009 might just be the year that OSHW reached critical mass. Certainly, the Arduino is now everywhere, but there are other great opens source hardware projects getting some coverage too. My favorite is still the Beagleboard — a super powerful ARM Cortext-A8 based computer in an open source 3″ x 3″ form factor.

Gerald Coley of Texas Instruments wrote a great article in EDN Magazine last year. His work is a finalist for the best contributed article category in EDN’s Innovation Awards. Check it out. It’s a great read.

Duane Benson

Curse you, Red Baron!

Microcontroller in the Middle

I’ve written about Open Source hardware before, such as the Beagleboard and Arduino. Those are both great options for folks needing to get moving on embedded microcontroller development.

The Arduino is pretty low-end and the Beagleboard is pretty high-end. I think I’ve run across a good step right in the middle.

A while back at the ESC show, we spoke with a gentleman from ARM about a project that would include an online IDE, and now, here it is. It’s not exactly the same as open source, but it solves many of the same problems that open source solves. Mainly, it’s a quick and easy way to get up and running with an ARM processor. Well, it looks easy, anyway. I haven’t tried it yet. I think I’ll see if I can get one and give it a shot.

By the way, we did not build this board. We have built some Beagleboards, but not this particular product. It certainly wouldn’t be a problem for us, but that’s not why I’m writing about it. It just looks like a great halfway point between something like the Atmel-based Arduino (or the PIC microcontrollers that I use) and the Beagleboard that uses the super-speedy ARM Cortex-A8.

If I can run one down and find the time to fiddle with it, I’ll let you know what I think of it in actual use.

Duane Benson
Stay tuned. Bulletins as event warrant.
Maybe …

10 Electronic Things to be Thankful For in 2009

It’s that time of year when we take stock of what’s good in our little worlds. Since I’m writing this on my work blog, I’ll keep my top 10 items focused on work-related thingys.

Number 10: Allocation!? Well, maybe. Nobody likes parts shortages and allocation, but maybe, just maybe, it means that we’re seeing the light at the end of the recession tunnel.

Number 9: The mighty QFN. Yes, I know the package can be a pain to layout properly, but the size reductions we can get with it are pretty cool. It used to take something like a TO-220 or D2Pak to drive an amp of current drain, but some of these new devices can do it in a little QFN (properly laid out, of course) form-factor.

Number 8: 99.47% on-time delivery in the last year. That’s less then one job late per month – and remember, if we’re one day late, the assembly is half off and if we’re two day’s late, the assembly is free.

Number 7: The Beagleboard being open source. It’s really opened up the world of high-end non-i86 embedded processors to a very large segment of the industry that just couldn’t quite get there before. Well done Beagleboard folks!

Number 6: The Internets. Back in the olden days when I was burning my fingers soldering up discrete transistors and plain TTL and such, I had a shelf of data books. I think I may still have an old purple National Semiconductor TTL data book buried in a box somewhere. It was always cool to page through those data books, and, of course, I didn’t need to be online in order to find what I needed, but heck, I can find it all now and even more without getting up and walking across the floor to my book shelf. In fact, I pretty much don’t have to move at all anymore thanks to the Intertubes.

Number 5: Google translator. Earlier today, I got an email written in German. Before online translators, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything with it and I would have missed a very big opportunity. The email was from a barrister in the tiny country of Togo. Apparently, he’s been looking for an heir to pass an inheritance to and can’t find one. He said that he went to the American embassy and they suggested me. If not for the Google translator, I would have missed out on this wonderful opportunity to get seven million dollars transferred right into my bank account.

Number 4:
Level translators. It’s still a pain to deal with interfacing signals at different voltage levels; like a 5V I2C device to a 3V I2C bus to a 1.8V GPIO, but it was way more of a pain before easy to use level translator chips became widely available. Especially the bi-directional chips. Much more convenient.

Number 3: Better static protection built into chips. Yes, we still religiously use static ground straps. We have a conductive floor and wear foot straps and anti-static jackets and have anti-static stuff all over the place, but chips are so much more robust then they used to be. I can remember the old 4000 series CMOS chips. It almost seemed like if you breathed wrong, they’d get zapped.

Number 2:
The LGA form-factor package. Just kidding. LGAs are annoying. Sure, there are some redeeming qualities: low profile, a RoHS part can go both leaded and unleaded, decent heat transfer. But, they also don’t flex as well as a BGA and the pads have the disdvantages of both BGA and QFN packages. Basically, they’re just annoying.

Number 1: And the number one electronic thing that I’m thankful for are these little Flash 8-bit microcontrollers like the PICs (that I use) and Atmels (like the Arduino uses). Holy mackerel, they make life a lot easier. All that GPIO, no support chips. And, self programmable flash. Ahhhh … Anybody out there still have a UV EPROM eraser?

Duane Benson
Embedded in my head