July 2014

Featured Article

Make your own Job with Open Source Hardware

By Lynnette Reese, Mouser Electronics

When jobs are scarce, open source hardware (OSHW) is opening doors for young engineers to gain experience, offering an alternative to simply waiting in between job searches. In slow economic times, engineers (and non-engineers alike) can go straight toward working for themselves, designing custom electronics systems for low volume applications such as vending machines, environmental data logging, drones for police, or designing custom solutions as consultants.  Creating something you find handy, like an internet enabled cat feeder, can also build resume experience.  But you have to get out there and do it. Open source hardware and connected forums are one way to get the experience you need in lieu of a job dropping in your lap. For those just exiting a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, it’s a catch-22: You can’t get a good shot at a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. Open source hardware snuffs out that excuse, at least with respect to embedded hardware.

Confidence is another vital tool in getting a good job. “You can’t sharpen a knife on velvet,” is a quote from Erma Johnson Hadley, the first woman and African American Chancellor for the Tarrant County College District in Fort Worth, Texas.  Sometimes you have to make your own opportunities, which means trying in spite of any personal reluctance associated with a lack of confidence. With open source hardware as low as ten dollars a board, cost is not a barrier, and multi-meters and soldering irons are relatively low in cost as well.

ST Microelectronics has launched the ten dollar Nucleo, a 100% open source board with software development tools free online at mbed.org. The Intel Galileo, although priced at about six times the Nucleo, is an x86-based board that is also 100% open source; meaning that schematics, Gerber files, and development tools are all available free for downloading by anyone.  You can be certain that Intel will release more open source boards.

In reality, many open source boards are subsidized; for example, the Nucleo’s  ten dollar price is the retail price, not a volume discount nor a hard-to-come-by and non-scalable educational grant from ST Microelectronics….although these subsidized boards indirectly accomplish the same goal. Open source hardware is the Lego of embedded hardware design, but more affordable, and thus more accessible.

OSHW is embedded design with training wheels. Modular system components can be used to create MCU-based systems with multiple wireless communication capabilities via various technologies, USB, the industrial CAN protocol, functions based on real time requirements, high definition displays, or the near-extinct UART/RS232 serial based wired communication for interface to external legacy products. It’s no wonder  Intel’s open source hardware moniker is “What will you build?” as Intel dives in to Maker’s Faire and other open source venues.

How does open source improve education? It provides wide-scale availability through low cost access. How many projects do students do by themselves in a bachelor’s program? “Team building project” is code for “can’t afford equipment for every student.” Students working in teams enable the weakest students to hide from participating. The less aggressive or slower students get shoved aside at the expense of individual learning for the greater good of the team grade. The barriers to individual learning and more importantly, confidence building, is eliminated with open source hardware. It is possible for students to emerge from an electrical engineering program with plenty of academic knowledge but little more than a dozen hurried lab exercises. This is quite detrimental to the student; they emerge from the program secretly feeling like a fraud because their only experience is having hurriedly worked through a series of step-by-step items in a lab, like engineering paint-by-numbers. More opportunity with personally troubleshooting a project builds real confidence; otherwise students build this confidence with experience on the job, and this is what employers look to avoid in hiring. Employers want road-ready engineers at the lower, “new-engineer” price versus paying more for an engineer with two years of experience.

The truth is that semiconductor companies want engineers to know about, understand how to use, and get comfortable with their MCUs because it’s a low cost investment in adoption of these MCUs into larger sockets later on. The MCU on an open source board is wrapped in a PCB, well-documented, and the board gets real estate in an online forum. Add some marketing splash or a large board give-away, and the board is seeded in the wild. The more committed proponents of open source hardware will watch and wait on the forum, answer questions, promptly fix bugs, and genuinely participate until some community momentum is built. And thus, open source hardware is perfect for the newly graduated engineer who has some time on his/her hands.

One amazing thing about open source hardware is that once a board is established in the wild, people perpetuate buzz around a flexible and well-supported board and create useful , and/or crazy things. Some participants in the community (a.k.a. “makers”) publish their projects because they get feedback on their work and ideas. This in turn fosters their own growth as others comment and even add to it, thus giving them more confidence about their published effort and abilities amongst their peers. Each participant might tweak or troubleshoot a little piece and post questions, findings, and recommendations. A natural knowledge base builds surrounding the board, and of course the MCU itself. Eventually, a knowledge base, community, and a robust ecosystem of projects is built around that MCU.

With more people comes more participation and more auxiliary products like daughter cards and modules appear, which are often published or sold with a mild mark-up. As momentum builds, the boards become part of unprompted educational programs and low-volume commercial products. Open source is the only model where plagiarizing is OK… as long as sharing ensues. But there is nothing to stop someone from selling the exact same design except if a trademark is involved: this is why Arduino has a trademark on its board, so people know it comes from the original maker.

Some semiconductor companies know that OSHW is the only business model where it really pays to give something away for free, because if successful, it will reap a harvest of MCU adoption. And latest trends show that OSHW rock stars like the Arduino make friends with companies like Intel.

Going back to the earlier topic of how young engineers can make their own way in a slow economy: One of the latest trends is to skip the layout and assembly process and use off-the-shelf open source hardware boards to create commercial products. Inexpensive open source boards are excellent for quick prototyping and they can also be the final product in low volumes. Isn’t this the definition of prototyping? And many OSHW boards are sold at below cost if you compare board price with the list prices of the bill of materials (BOM) of the same. Boards are sold in limited quantities, since distributors only stock several hundred at any time, anyway, so using subsidized boards is simply not scalable. With some luck, if business booms, the volume discounts will kick in. The worst case scenario is that the business built on OSHW boards does not grow; but by that time the young entrepreneur has cut his/her teeth on the vital parts of building a product and a business.

You cannot sharpen a knife on velvet, and if the student is the knife, then easy lab exercises or team projects are….velvet. The angst of creating, developing, testing and presenting embedded hardware projects is the best way to sharpen students for the real world, and with open source, it’s easier to access ever before. One free resource to investigate is at mouser.com, with a large site of open source hardware from across several manufacturers and organized by technological capability. There you will find boards with a comprehensive listing of related modules, accessories, and tool, software, and documentation download sites. Sharpen that knife!

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