Contextual Electronics Engineering

(KiCad) Information Wants To Be Free

This is a cross-post from the Contextual Electronics blog, as it affects readers here and there

TL; DR: I am releasing all of the KiCad videos that were part of Contextual Electronics to the public and have started a new site/forum to support them. See below for announcement video.

I officially finished the first two sessions (1A & 1B) of Contextual Electronics in early June. It was a great experience, especially for a first time course, especially one where there was money involved and I was the IT guy on the project. It wasn’t a super smooth build, but that kind of added to the project; we were all “in it together”. At the very least, I can very confidently say I don’t regret quitting my job to teach electronics; it has been rewarding and an eye opening experience.

The first part of the course (session 1A) was all about how to design a PCB for a particular application. We use an open source PCB CAD program called KiCad. The open source was important to me because it not only meant that members would be able to download and use the software free of charge, it also meant the final product–which is licensed as open source hardware–could also be replicated and improved upon without needing to buy a license for the software that designed the product.

I had been a fan of KiCad long before starting the course and the software has been in development long before that (since 1992!). But it has never really taken off either in the professional nor the hobbyist community, the latter being the more perplexing data point; the predominate piece of CAD software with electronics hobbyists is CadSoft EAGLE. I think it’s a good piece of software and have used it a bunch for previous designs, but also think KiCad has surpassed EAGLE in many ways.

Not only am I a fan of KiCad, I also see how fast it is moving. It is a dynamic software environment, with developers who are regularly working to make it better. In fact, CERN recently added resources to assist in the project and have been rolling out some exciting new features. They are helping to inject some advanced techniques into the package, which should help move it towards being a world-class piece of CAD software.

So between enjoying my own use of KiCad, educating others how to use it and still not seeing it take off, I decided that I am going to release all of the videos that were part of Contextual Electronics about KiCad onto YouTube. I hope that these will encourage people browsing YouTube for help with KiCad to take a deeper look and start using it for all of their projects. I will also add move videos as newer features become standardized and new stable builds are released.

The other thing I noticed that was missing was a place to discuss KiCad. There is a Yahoo group but I am not a big fan of Yahoo groups nor how they are run. So I decided to start up a new site with information on how to do the builds and a forum where people can discuss KiCad and the videos I posted. It is meant to be a resource for people getting started who want to build their own PCBs with KiCad.

So that’s all for the big announcements today. I will be over at the new forums, answering questions and supporting the site. I hope you will join me over there!

Business Contextual Electronics

I’m in the knowledge business, not the hardware business

I’m paying way too much to get PCBs made.

How do I know this? I’ve done it before. I know how many boards I’m making (quite a few!). I know the costs. I know the tradeoffs. And not only that, I’ve gotten quotes from China. I’ve seen how little I can pay (15-20% of what I will end up paying per board).

But that’s not the whole story of course (one sentence statements of my idiocy are left for my Twitter account, this is much more long form). No, this is actually a combination of factors, mistakes and conscious decisions that brings me to this point.

So first, the reveal: I will be using OSHpark to manufacture boards for Contextual Electronics. Here’s why:

  1. I know James (Laen) and trust him — I have met and had beers with Laen. I’ve bought boards from OSHpark before and had (small) issues quickly resolved. I worked with him for the boards I sent to the Open Hardware Summit. I can gChat with him from time to time. These things go a long way in business, in my book.
  2. I believe in OSHpark — You probably have been seeing more and more purple boards pop up due to the awesome $5/sq in service for a 2 layer board with soldermask and silkscreen. I can’t imagine how that would have changed my learning process when I started making PCBs and I get to hear how positively this has impacted people in the process of learning. Added bonus: Made in the US of A, baby!
  3. I got a bulk rate — I was a bit fast and loose with the amount of material I designed into the BenchBudEE. I wanted to have a lot of large mechanical features, I wanted to teach using a 4 layer board and I wanted to be able to plug other boards into the Arduino headers (like a display on top) while still being able to access the auxiliary circuits. All of this added up to 15 sq in of PCB material. Using the $10/sq inch service from OSHpark, that would have been $150 for 3 boards. I am paying less due to the number of CE members getting boards. If you contact them, you might be able to negotiate a discount for bulk orders as well.
  4. It includes logistics — That is a shipped price. Now, before you tell me how easy it is to put PCBs into an envelope and slap a stamp on them, allow me to tell you: I don’t care. I’m not in the logistical business. Many many people are better at this than I am and I don’t want to get into it. In fact, I’m paying a premium in order to avoid it. Aside from getting set up and thinking about shipping and international issues (customs, transit times, etc), I’m also handing of some of the PCB manufacturing worries (working directly with the fab). As the title implies, I’m in the knowledge business now. I will ship and build hardware for myself, of course…but then I’ll teach others how to do the same for themselves. It’s also much more likely that CE members will be doing low quantity manufacturing and need to learn more about that at first than the high volume stuff that would end up consuming my time.
  5. It saves me head space — I’m a chronic worrier. I know myself and I know I will stress over perfecting the logistics. Instead, I should spend that time developing more class content for members, including the upcoming Session 1B of Contextual Electronics. Plus, working with people who are good at what they do (like Laen) helps me sleep better at night.

BenchBudEE V1.0

Will I definitely use an outside company to ship boards forever? No, it’s possible that I change my mind in the future and decide to pull this kind of service in house. I have seen my podcast co-host do the same with his shipping, as he works on fulfilling his Kickstarter campaign. This has been an interesting lesson and I’ve talked with Dave quite a bit about his struggles and how it’s paying off. He’s building a foundation for many future hardware campaigns (probably crowdfunded).

Note the differences though: Kickstarter campaigns ship everything at once, in batches (in a best-case scenario). I plan to continue developing and teaching new courses on a regular basis (in batches). However, if I want to allow people to sign up for past courses asynchronously (whenever they want), I may want to continue to offload shipping single units to individuals. Having a service like OSHpark or another fulfillment house do this on a per-person basis (even if at higher cost), could make lots of sense for me so I don’t have to keep inventory. Technically this could already happen as the OSHpark service would allow a student to order boards and all work we do for Contextual Electronics will be licensed as Open Source Hardware. However, negotiating longer term contracts and having distributors (or fulfillment houses) keep them on-hand will completely remove this from my list of tasks.

From a business perspective, I am still making a very healthy margin, as I am selling a “knowledge product” (yak). However, if there were price increases due to changes in business conditions, this could be passed along to members as a “cost of doing the course”. Obviously I will work to reduce that burden on them and the trend points to the cost of PCBs continuing to fall.

It kind of sounds weird, doesn’t it? A hardware guy complaining about making and shipping hardware? But in a world of tight timelines, constrained resources (see also: my time) and my desire to continue developing new stuff, this seems to make sense for me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.