Monday, April 8, 2013

Kicad–Another Learning Curve


For my initial circuit boards I used Cadsoft Eagle. In my undergrad I tried it and I very much disliked it due to it feeling “dated”, but I was busy doing mechanical engineering. As a result I decided to push my EE-like ambitions out, and moved on with my life.

When I was hit with the need to design PCBs I had found that the hobbyist community had already strongly developed around Eagle. To be honest, I’ve never been sure why. I mean, in the 6 years I haven’t been using Eagle it hasn’t changed – well, 6 years ago it crashed a bit, and now it doesn’t. But the interface looks identical and as a result I’ve had to change my Solidworks / Ansys mind-set towards a very different workflow.

However, today, I hit on a legal dilemma. CADsoft Eagle’s free version is for non-commercial works only. If I create the circuit board for my beta group with Eagle, then I have to reproduce it later in another package if I wanted to sell it. It’s better to bite the bullet and do this up front. I don’t have a specific timeline built up, but I plan to start ordering parts within a week (resistors, capacitors, inductors, battery holders, etc) and designing up the enclosure (which will be produced after I get a new PCB up and running).

Kicad is a free and open source alternative with no commercial restrictions as far as I can see. I’ve been doing a tutorial to get my bearings and it’s not too different from Eagle – except it looks and feels 5 – 8 years newer. The workflow and buttons are similar but like anyone who switches from one 3D software to another: the combinations of CTRL, ALT, Shift + Mouse L/R/Middle + movement are all different. After using one piece of software a lot, say ANSYS Classical, then moving to Solidworks, then to Ansys Workbench, means you are constantly confusing yourself on how to navigate a simple space. It really makes you feel a bit like an idiot – luckily nobody really notices.

To be honest, I wish I had access to Altium Designer as Nordic already has reference schematics and layouts in these. However, Altium Designer is not a cost feasible solution ($7245 US) and I’m sure the learning curve would be even worse. I’m sure an experienced designer would be able to make use of the design software better than I could. However I’m at best a Mechatronics kind of guy.

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