Merging modern software development with electrons and metal
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Posts from — April 2011

My Toolbox — Software

What software do I like on my service laptop?

  • All my development software.  I never know when I might need a particular software package.
    • However, licensing can be an issue; nobody wants to pay extra money for a license that sits mostly unused on a laptop.  Some software allows for multiple installations.
    • If the software only allows for one installation, I prefer using a dongle to a software key, because it’s easy to move the dongle around — and way too easy to “lose” the software key (I’ve seen it happen every time with software keys, which why I hate software keys).
    • Software licensing based on the MAC address or such, that can be moved around easily (e.g. return key via internet, then check it out on another computer) is better, but is still a hassle.
    • Of course, the best vendors say: “You can copy the software; just don’t tell us” (said to me by a saleswomen for a large German automation vendor).
  • Electrical Schematic viewer
    • I don’t always have a paper schematics with me, so it’s important to be able to view schematics on my laptop.
    • Since our schematics are in DWG files, I use eDrawings as a convenient DWG file viewer.  You can also use a full AutoCAD clone; DoubleCAD XT (Windows only) and DraftSight (Windows, Mac, Linux) are both high quality, free AutoCAD clones.
  • Merge software with directory comparisons
    • I’ve found file comparison software to be a life-saver.  Version control is great, but a machine in the field might be in a different state.  I can use the directory comparison to quickly see what files have changed, and then zero in on the changes using file comparison, and then merge between the two versions if needed.  Some software handles three-way merges.
      • I just did this kind of directory comparison recently when upgrading two almost-but-not-quite-identical machines.
    • I’ve been using Araxis Merge for a long time, and have no regrets about spending my money on it.  I’ve used some free options (such as TortoiseMerge with TortoiseSvn), but I feel Araxis works better for some file comparisons.   TortoiseMerge doesn’t do directory comparisons.
  • If you use a personal laptop for work, consider using a Virtual Machine (VM) to keep your private and professional lives separate.  With USB pass through features, you should be able to access USB, serial (via USB to serial converters), and networked equipment from within the VM.
  • In the future, I might look at taking my version control system with me; since I’m currently running Subversion and Trac in a Virtual Machine, I could do it easily by copying the VM to my laptop.

April 18, 2011   2 Comments

Automation Printed Circuit Board Resources

In one of my first posts, I talked about using the prototype PCB industry for low volume machines.  Overall, I think creating custom PCBs are great, although they aren’t always the best solution.  Four years and a of experience later, it’s time for an update with links to more resources.

Designing PCBs

Simplified software just for creating custom break out boards would be great, but I doubt there is enough of a market for such a program.  So I use Eagle PCB, because of its widespread use (and thus available support).

Affordable PCB design software includes:

  • At least 3 open source options, the gEDA suite , Kicad, and FreePCB.  Kicad is probably easier to use than gEDA, but I haven’t used either.  Someday I plan to try out gEDA and Kicad, using the Fedora Electronics Lab Linux distribution installed in a VirtualBox virtual machine.
  • Eagle PCB ($49-$1494).  A little overkill for automation PCBs, but works well, and has a lot of support (tutorials, support from CADSoft, SparkFun library, etc).
  • PCB programs tied to PCB proto houses, including PCB 123 from Sunstone and PCB Artist from Advanced Circuits.  These programs limit your flexibility (check the links for details), but should be simpler (for example, there shouldn’t be any Gerbers to create and possibly screw up), and are definitely worth considering.
  • Various other commercial PCB programs, including Target 3001! (59-2999 Euros), Power Station 32 ($50-$2995), Easy-PC ($477 and up), Edwin XP ($700 and up), Vutrax, Proteus PCB ($249 and up), and DipTrace ($75 to $695).

Getting Your PCB Made

There are many good options, but since I do not know enough to rate them all, I will mention a few:

  1. I’ve used Sierra Proto Express for many years with excellent results.  Their newer Web PCB service gives even more options, including longer delivery times (with lower prices).  I always order at least 3 boards, since 3 PCBs don’t cost more than 1.  Typically pricing for the No-touch service is around $110 for 3 PCBs.
  2. If you just need 1 PCB at the lowest cost, and can wait a while, consider BatchPCB, since they charge by the square inch.  IIRC, pricing is $2.50/sq in for 2 layer, and typically delivery is 3-4 weeks.
  3. If you don’t need hand-holding, have multiple designs, and want lower prices, consider Gold Phoenix.  I had excellent results getting 6 different PCB designs made by them at about $140 for 155 sq in.
  4. You might prefer a PCB house that will take the files your PCB design software creates directly; that is a little easier than creating Gerbers.
  5. Although I don’t use this option, look at the details and consider if PCB houses with free software, such as Sunstone and Advanced Circuits, are a good choice for you.

Component Notes

I’m still using Phoenix for most of my terminal blocks.  For small quantities, Mouser is still typically best, but check your local distributor for larger quantities; ours is significantly less expensive than Mouser or Digikey.

There seems to be a lot better selection of European-style terminal blocks than there was a few years ago, but I haven’t looked at them in detail (I only have so many hours in a day).

I’m looking at using Phoenix UM holders, since I’d like more size options than the UMK series has.

April 4, 2011   2 Comments

Affordable 3D MCAD

These are low cost programs suitable for designing mechanical assemblies.

Don’t forget you can use multiple programs to overcome the limitations of one program.

Open Source

Both NaroCAD and FreeCAD are under active development, but I’m pretty sure neither one is anywhere close to ready for production use.

They are still worth checking out, because they might have enough functionality for what you need to do.

Free Commercial MCAD

These programs typically have a lot of limitations, the terms can change at any time, but they are still potentially useful.

  1. PowerSHAPE-e.  Very powerful, but costs money to export.
  2. Autodesk 123D.  Appears to be good match for modeling personal PCBs; has STEP import and export.
  3. CoCreate PE, now creo elements/direct PE.  Limited import and export, limited to 60 parts, but good to see PTC has moved it into the Creo world.
  4. MEDUSA4 Personal.  Available for Windows and Linux.
  5. Autodesk Labs Inventor Fusion Preview.  Time limited preview of the Fusion direct editing MCAD software.

MCAD Under $500

  1. Alibre PE ($199).  Very limited import and export options.

MCAD Under $1500

  1. IronCAD Draft ($595).  Not a full MCAD program (e.g. can’t create parts), but can create assemblies.
  2. Alibre Professional ($699).  Adds import/export options and more.
  3. VariCAD ($710).  Available for Windows and Linux.
  4. IronCAD INNOVATE XG (~$1300).  Meant for conceptual design, but according to the product comparison it includes “assembly modeling within  a single scene”.
  5. Alibre Expert ($1399).  Adds CAM, Motion, MoI, and more.
  6. The combination of Rhino ($995 list, available for less) and RhinoWorks ($595, adds parametric and assembly capabilities) might work well.

Other Options worth considering

  1. ZW3D ($2500 for Standard).  ZW3D 2011 adds direct editing.
  2. IRONCAD ($4000 and up).  Innovative MCAD.
  3. SpaceClaim ($2450 and up).  Well known for easy direct editing.

Update 4/18/2011: Added Rhino/RhinoWorks

Update 5/22/2011: Added Autodesk 123D, updated Alibre PE price.

April 1, 2011   No Comments