Although the World Wide Web (WWW) itself is considered by many as the biggest success of open source (OS), the dependence of OS on the WWW is actually even greater. Imagine how difficult it would be to create, share and collaborate with people across the world without the Web as a backbone? An issue focusing on OS electronics would therefore be quite incomplete if we do not talk about online resources that aid in the development and use of such electronics. Here, we look at some such interesting sites that satiate your curiosity and enthusiasm to build open hardware. However, note that we are not repeating the oft-mentioned and already well-known resources such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi’s official blogs, Make Magazine, and such.
1. How can I get my PCB designs fabbed?
There are several OS tools available on the Web to design printed circuit boards (PCB). However, many often think it is futile to fiddle with designs if they cannot get them fabricated. Now, the Web also makes such facilities available at your doorstep.
During his I-Day speech, our Prime Minister insisted on manufacturing in India. He invited people to make in India, sell anywhere in the world. So, when it comes to your PCBs too, made in India ought to be the first choice to explore. PCB Power (www.pcbpower.com) is an Indian firm specialising in design and manufacture of PCBs. While they supply to customers in hi-fi verticals like aviation, defence, railways, industrial electronics, etc, what sets them apart from others is that they also print small orders for learners and enthusiasts! Ordering is quite easy and unambiguous too. First, enter basic specifications like size, layers, delivery period and quantity, and get a quick online quote. If you are okay with the rates, you can place an order by uploading the Gerber files and fabrication parameters.
Another choice is German manufacturer Fritzing Fab (http://fab.fritzing.org/fritzing-fab), which manufactures in Berlin and supplies to any place in the world. Fritzing Fab consolidates orders and fabricates them together once a week, which makes it possible to process even single-PCB orders at a reasonably low cost. Apart from fabrication services, Fritzing also offers loads of learning materials, and a freely downloadable OS software that helps you create, document and share OS electronics.
OSH Park (https://oshpark.com/) is a another option, where PCB orders from the community are consolidated, manufactured in the USA, and shipped for free to anywhere in the world. Again, this is an affordable option, and OSH Park ships promptly within 12 to 15 days of ordering. To get an idea, they charge US$ 5 per square inch for three copies of two-layer boards, and US$ 10 per square inch for three copies of four-layer boards.
2. How do I make my own vehicle?
You might not intend to really compete with the Tatas and Toyotas of this world, but have you ever wished that you could build your own vehicle, for kicks or due to any special needs? Well, OSVehicle (http://www.osvehicle.com) or OSV is an upcoming open source vehicle platform that offers a way out. Their first prototype, Tabby, was showcased at last year’s Maker Faire. Tabby is a versatile, universal chassis on which you can build a variety of vehicles ranging from two, three or four seaters to even cargo carriers, capable of travelling up to 80 kilometres per hour. With their starter kit, you can supposedly assemble Tabby in less than an hour! Tabby is certified as road-safe and also complies with environmental norms. OSV technology is compatible with all types of engines—electric, hybrid and internal combustion. All the plans and blueprints can be downloaded from their website and modified at will. The forum is quite active and can be a medium to share your ideas, solve your problems and collaborate on new projects. OSVehicle, like most successful OS businesses, offers two modes to build your vehicle—do it yourself, or do it together. The former means downloading all the designs and doing it all yourself, while the latter includes paid services and support.
You can also check out OScar (http://www.theoscarproject.org/), another project aiming to reinvent mobility using OS.
3. How do I get my kids interested in OS?
Many like to see their kids do what they like to do themselves! While that can be quite imposing many a times, it could turn out positively in the case of OS electronics, because it is a great means of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning in the early years and deeper exploration later. Luckily, OS electronics has some nice goodies for kids too.
Although it might not seem directly like an electronics project, Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu/), a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group of MIT Media Labs, is a great way to get your kids started with programming—a life skill to survive in the electronics community! Scratch lets them visually program and create interactive stories, games and animations, which can be shared with the thriving online community. Scratch is sure to teach kids—or even adults—to think and reason multi-dimensionally and work collaboratively, another must-have OS skill.
Kids might find littleBits (http://littlebits.cc/) very interesting too. It offers an easy way to understand, develop and prototype electronics while making it all seem like child’s play, literally, with their colourful building blocks! littleBits is an OS library of electronic modules that snap together with tiny magnets. No wiring, soldering or programming. Snap them together and they start working. Take them apart, and make something new. They work just like building blocks that kids play with. cloudBit, another snap-on module, enables kids to join the Internet of Things (IoT) bandwagon too. Now, making a smart towel holder or SMS-controlled calling bell is child’s play! Several interesting kits and bundles of littleBits modules are on sale online.
If you are an electronics-pro, you would probably just want to pick up some projects or parts, roll up your sleeves and get started with your little helper! However, before you indulge in any OS project with your kids, keep in mind the fun aspect. As Dave Neary, an OS expert at Red Hat explains in one of his blog posts, “As long as their hands are in gunk and they are taking things apart, or there’s the possibility of blowing something up, kids will stay interested. As soon as the activity starts to seem like work, they switch off.”
4. How do I get parts for my projects?
Open source means lot of trial and error, experimentation and freedom to try things out. However, all of us know OS or free software is not necessarily financially ‘free,’ as in free beer! This is especially true of OS electronics, where there is a physical, tangible aspect. You get lots of designs online, as well as free and OS software for everything from design to simulation. But when it comes to actually making the product, you need to buy some components.
While some like to go backpacking to their local electronics bazaar, it is also possible to buy most of what you need online. There are sites like Adafruit Industries (http://www.adafruit.com/), Make Magazines’s Maker Shed (http://www.makershed.com/) and SparkFun Electronics (https://www.sparkfun.com/), Simple Labs (www.simplelabs.co.in) and Explore Labs (www.explorelabs.com), which have a thriving online community that answers doubts, shares tutorials, projects and ideas, while also selling electronic components, parts, kits, etc. Or, you can check out retailers like Kits’n’Spares (www.kitsnspares.com), Futurlec (www.futurlec.com), AliExpress (www.aliexpress.com) or Robotkits (www.robokits.org).
Most of these sites sell all kinds of electronics, not just OS ones, so look for what you want. Before you buy, compare the pricing and deals on a few websites and then order, because it is possible to get free shipping and other offers.
5. How do I find projects, get doubts cleared?
This is perhaps the easiest question to answer—because that is the main advantage of OS electronics. Nobody wants to keep their knowledge to themselves in the OS community. If they have found a better way of doing something, they want to share it. If they find an enthusiast wanting to learn something, they are eager to teach.
There are umpteen OS electronics websites with thriving forums and communities. OpenElectronics (http://www.open-electronics.org/), OpenCores (http://opencores.org/) and OpenCircuits (http://www.opencircuits.com) are some of the sites that cover only OS electronics. That apart, most of the do-it-yourself websites like MAKE: (http://makezine.com/), Electronics For You (www.electronicsforu.com), Instructables (http://www.instructables.com/), Popular Mechanics DIY (http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/how-to/) and DIY (https://diy.org/) also have lots of OS content and projects.
The websites of OS boards, such as Arduino (http://arduino.cc/), Raspberry Pi (http://www.raspberrypi.org/) and Beagleboard (http://beagleboard.org/), are perfect places to go to if you are working with these specific boards because you find innumerable ideas, solutions to problems, and enthusiastic knowledge-sharing on these communities.
The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai