Laen, Open Source Hardware Hero
Editor’s note: Joining me interviewing Laen (and in the introduction) is John DeCristofaro, best known as Johngineer in the maker world.
Many of you have probably used (or at least know about) the Dorkbot PDX PCB service. Recently, the service changed it’s name to OSH Park (Open Source Hardware Park, pronounced like ‘Osh Kosh’), with a new website (oshpark.com) and an automated submission system. The service, in both incarnations, is run by James Neal, more widely known as Laen.
Laen is a sysadmin by day, and an open-source hardware superhero by night. Why do I call him an OSH superhero? Well, I happen to believe that by running his PCB service, he’s enabled more people to make and thus share more things than almost anybody else.
Building open source hardware is fun, but it’s also a lot of work! In any project (open or closed) there are developmental iterations — designs rarely work perfectly in their first incarnation. There are functional and UX improvements that always need to be made. For hardware, this can become prohibitively expensive very quickly — quality fabrication costs money, especially for small runs.
For PCBs, combining designs together (“batching”) can help lower the cost, but just organizing and panelizing the batch requires significant effort. Laen took it upon himself to do this — first for the Dorkbot PDX community and then for the world — and in so doing he’s helped a lot of people build a lot of hardware that otherwise wouldn’t get built. Further, for beginners, the ability to test and learn from your mistakes is critical, and it’s difficult to do that when each mistake costs a lot of money or takes a long time to turn over.
The low cost and fast turnaround has enabled people to vet, test, and refine their designs before releasing them, and so we all benefit. I’ve been using his service for about 2 years, and I know that in my case the above holds true. I suspect there are many others who could say the same.
Phil Torrone and I recently sat down (over email) with Laen to ask him some questions about his PCB service: the history and the philosophy behind it, what the future holds, and most importantly, why he decided to use purple solder mask.
Many thanks to him for answering our questions and providing some insight into a service that’s become a keystone for the open source hardware community.
Read on for the full interview!
Johngineer: This originally began as a PCB pooling service for DorkbotPDX members, but you expanded to include outside submissions. What is DorkbotPDX, and what prompted you to start the PCB service? How long have you been running it?
Laen: DorkbotPDX is a community of geeks and artists in Portland that get together a couple of times a month to share and collaborate on projects. We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and we’re up to 30 to 50 people a meeting. We also have monthly workshops and classes hosted by Pacific Northwest College of Art.
A couple of years ago, we started doing a Digi-Key and Mouser parts group order to split up the cost of shipping and qualify for quantity discounts. This was great, and it really helped us build more interesting projects, but people started to find that a lot of new and interesting parts only come in surface mount packages. We were spending a lot on custom circuit boards, and it was taking weeks or months to get the boards back from China, which was frustrating.
Following the model of the parts order, the PCB order was born in late 2009. We held a “designing PCBs in Eagle” class, and collected enough boards to warrant our first panel.
J: I imagine that your submissions have increased over time. Percentage-wise, how many more submissions do you receive now than when you began? How often do you send out a panel? How many hours each week do you spend working on the service?
L: Oh yes, it’s increased a lot since the early days. When I first started doing it, we were doing a panel every two months. Even though we were designing a lot of boards and making cool projects, we still weren’t filling the panel all the way on our own. In early 2010, I started accepting orders from people outside of our local Dorkbot group, and that really helped. It went from one every two months to being able to do them monthly, then pretty quickly to one every two weeks. One year after the first panel, I was able to start doing them weekly.
Up until recently, it’s been pretty labor intensive. Before the new ordering website, I was spending 2–4 hours a night adding boards to the panel. Actually breaking apart the panels and mailing them became the fastest part, taking only about an hour.
With the new ordering website, it really frees me up to help people with their designs and build the new community features.
J: That’s quite an undertaking. In spite of all the work, what’s the most rewarding thing about running the PCB service?
L: I just love seeing the awesome projects people make with “my” boards. Every week I find something new and awesome that I’ve never seen before. Last week it was Bill Porter’s Million Volt Guitar. The projects “for kids” are my absolute favorites. As a new father, I love the world these people are building for my daughter to grow into, and it inspires me to build my own projects.
J: If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently? What advice would you give to someone else who was interested in starting a similar service?
L: I would’ve sought out fab expertise a lot earlier. It turns out that putting together a PCB panel is a lot more difficult than just making designs fit. They have to be balanced for copper coverage and drill density, or else you get all sorts of etching and plating problems. That plagued me for the first year of doing the order, until I finally got in contact with David Duross of pcbdesignschool.com and he educated me on the manufacturing process, and pointed me in the right direction.
J: The purple solder mask is sort of your trademark now. How did that come about?
L: Heh, yeah, I guess it sort of is. When I first started doing the order, I did green like everyone else, but I don’t think it’s a terribly attractive color. I wanted a color that would stand out, so I could quickly figure out which boards I made when going through my Flickr and news feeds.
Right when I was looking at what my options were, a guy brought a purple Nuvoton development board to one of our meetings, and I knew that had to be my color. After working with the fab over several weeks to try different mixes of red and blue to find the right color, I contacted the solder mask manufacturer and finally got a color I was happy with.
Phillip Torrone: How many panels total have you sent out?
L: Over 200 sets of panels, totaling over a quarter million square inches of raw PCB space.
PT: How many countries have you shipped PCBs to?
L: Let’s see … A few shell scripts, and … I’m getting ~80 countries. I now have boards on all continents including Antartica, and one of “my” boards was shot up on a suborbital rocket.
PT: How big is a panel?
L: The largest panel size fabs generally deal with is 18×24 inches, of which about 390 square inches are usable. With panelization inefficiencies, I generally get about 340 square inches out of a panel.
PT: Do you find it’s usually original designs or open source hardware designs they’ve found and ran?
L: It’s almost entirely original designs and modifications to existing open source hardware designs. It’s pretty rare to see someone just order an existing open source hardware design unmodified, since there are usually cheaper ways to get the bare PCB, but there are some projects that just say, “Order the board from this guy over here…”
PT: Which OSHW designs are most popular?
L: There are a few designs that are popular enough that I just have some pre-made so I can ship them out faster. Fabio Varesano’s “Femtoduino” and “FreeIMU” boards are very popular. Heck, *duino designs in general are really popular.
A few months ago, the awesome guys at DigitalMisery designed a board called the “ColorNode” that replaces the controller board in GE Color Effects RGB Christmas lights with their own Bluetooth-enabled board.
I see tons of variations on Ladyada’s Mintyboost, where people modify it to fit other enclosures, or tack on additional features like rechargeable battery packs. A lot of people just use that circuit as their power supply on their boards.
PT: A lot of other quick fab houses use board houses from China, but you’re using one from the USA. How did you find them, and why use a USA company?
L: Yeah, that’s important to me for many reasons, so I apologize in advance if I get a little passionate here.
I believe in buying local whenever possible, and in electronics there are very few opportunities to do so. This is still one of them, and U.S. fabs have a lot of advantages:
— They’re fast. In light of overseas cost pressures, U.S. fabs have been pushed to optimize for quick turn times. I’m able to order a panel, and get it back in the mail within 8 days.
— They tend to be quality-focused. When your customers rely on you to get their prototypes made quickly, they require them to be made accurately. Our “bad board” rate from this fab is an amazing 1 in 10,000 boards.
— Finally, making circuit boards can be dangerous, and the chemicals involved are really nasty. I wouldn’t feel good running the service without knowing for certain that the fabs are being held to a certain level of environmental, labor, and safety standards.
PT: What’s next for Dorkbot PDX? You’re going to do this full-time now?
L: It might come to that, but my day job is really interesting, engaging, and challenging to me, and I would hate to give that up.
PT: Do you advertise at all, or is it word of mouth?
L: It’s entirely word of mouth. I don’t have an advertising budget. The community of people using the PCB order does an awesome job of spreading the word.
PT: What’s a good pre-flight checklist before someone sends in their PCBs?
L: I have several things I do when for my own boards before I have them made:
— Put some good identifying marks on the board. When I find this board in a drawer after 5 revisions, I want to know which one this was. I keep my boards under a version control system, and tag each board with an identifier that’s printed on the board before I have them made. That way I can look back at the board and schematic and the intervening revision history to find out what was wrong with it.
— Think about the mechanical. How is it going to interact with its environment? Where does the power come in, and how will I mount this to an enclosure?
— Design for failure. Your board probably won’t work on the first rev, so try to make it easy to rework. Put some extra vias or pads on the boards so you can run wires. Give yourself lots of room to solder and re-solder.
— Make a printout of the board and line your parts up on it to make sure your parts will fit. Think about how you’ll assemble it, and imagine poking your soldering iron around on it. If your parts are crammed closely together, it can be hard to get between them to touch the pads with an iron.
J: So, the new service is called OSH Park? What does the name change mean? What changes, if any, can we expect to see in the new service vs. the old one?
L: OSH Park will eventually grow to be kind of a nature preserve of open source hardware, a place for people to share their designs and build off the designs of others. I think it’s really interesting how designs borrow and evolve from prior designs, and how lots of different people will come up with lots of different takes on how to solve particular problems. I think OSH Park can become a place that accelerates and tracks that.
The biggest change will be that the PCB order will be a smaller part of the focus. My service has always been about helping people realize their designs, and while the PCB order is a part of that, I think having a huge ecosystem of designs and modules and circuits, and a community of helpful people, will be an even bigger help.
J: A while back, Greg Peek (@siliconfarmer) wrote an Android app to track the progress of panels as they filled up, similar to the progress bar on the main PCB page. Is there something similar planned for the new OSH Park service?
L: Oh yes, definitely. I want to extend the app to explore projects and track orders.
J: On average, how many separate boards do you get for an order?
L: I get between 50 and 90 separate designs per panel.
J: What sort of feedback have you received from the community, either over email or in person at events like Maker Faire?
Super positive. A lot of people tell me they couldn’t have made their design without my service, which feels really good. It was especially satisfying at Maker Faire to see the number of purple boards which I recognized from panels just a couple of weeks beforehand. A fast turn-time can be really important when in front of deadlines like that.
J: What’s the cleverest board design you’ve ever seen?
L: Oh man, every panel has something new and awesome on it.
A few people have started drawing the schematic onto the silkscreen of the board. That looks really pretty and is oh-so-functional. It makes it really easy to just look at a board and figure out what it does.
A few people are doing really spectacular PCB artwork. One panel had a gorgeous PCB butterfly on it. They exposed all the traces through the solder mask, so it looked like a purple butterfly with golden veins going across it.
Low power designs really fascinate me. Tim’s Mosquino does a bunch of fun tricks to keep power consumption low. I’ve learned a lot from his designs.
This new trend of electronic conference badges is really neat, because of how form follows function, and how they’re designed to be quickly hackable. I’ve been manufacturing the prototypes for http://www.openamd.org/ and it’s always really interesting to see what they’re doing.
J: What’s the best artwork you’ve seen?
L: I love this one, and was honored that I could take part:
Ooo, and this, though the blurry shot doesn’t do it justice:
More artwork on circuit boards, people!
J: Just for the record, what are the specs for the boards you send out? Copper weight, minimum trace, etc.? (I know this is all on the website, but this is a good way to let folks who aren’t familiar know about it.)
L: The boards are 1.6mm FR4 170Tg/290Td with 1oz copper on both sides. The minimum specs I do are 6 mil traces with 6 mil spaces, and 13 mil drills with 7 mil annular rings. They have lead-free ENIG (gold) finish for easy soldering. They’re entirely RoHS compliant, and compatible with lead-free temperatures and processes.
J: For the boards people send in, what’s the most popular CAD package (Eagle, KiCAD, etc.)?
L: For a long time Eagle was the reigning king with 80% or more of the boards going through the order. In the past 8 months or so, KiCAD has surpassed it and now the percentages are roughly:
- 50% KiCAD
- 30% Eagle
- 10% Altium
- 5% gEDA PCB
- 5% “Other”
I’m really happy to see all the KiCAD love. I believe that open source hardware is best served with open source software, though I still use Eagle myself. I’ve built up a pretty substantial parts library and it’s tough to get past the psychological barrier of leaving that behind. @wayneandlayne are doing a good job convincing me that I should switch to KiCAD though.
Thanks again to Laen for taking the time to talk with us. You can learn more about the PCB service and submit designs at the OSH Park website: www.oshpark.com. Also be sure to check out the OSH Park Flickr pool to browse through some of the great projects people have built using the service!
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