Saturday, June 18, 2016

"This is such a great time to be in the hobby"

 After the two days at FDIM, I went and spent a couple weeks helping my daughter with a few things around her house.
I did a little computer work on some of the projects I had started, but mostly followed some of the blogs I keep track of.  One of them is by Pete N6QW.  After a couple of e-mail exchanges concerning some of his new projects, he ended one with "This is such a great time to be in the hobby".  I couldn't agree with him more. 

When I started in electronics in the mid 1960's , an instrument with the capabilities of the SNA Jr. would have cost many thousands of dollar and fit in a 19" rack.  Now it is a hand held unit that cost less than $30 to build.  This is mostly due to the fantastic advancement in micro-electronics, especially the new micro-controller chips that are available.  

The first job I had after I got out of the ARMY in the late 1970's was as an engineering technician in a very small company.  One of the  projects I worked on, used what I might consider an early predecessor of the Arduino type controller.  It used a single board computer, with a 4 Mhz Z80 processor, 4K RAM, room for 24K e-prom, and 16 IO pins.  It was about 1 foot square, cost  $250, and you needed a few hundred dollars worth of software to develop anything for it.  Now it is a $3 Arduino Pro-Mini about the size of a large postage stamp, and the software IDE is free.  Along with the Arduino or other micro-controller board, you have all the  peripherals such as LCD or TFT displays , DDS and PLL modules, and of course the many ICs availble.   Some times the hardest part of the design is to decide which of the many options you want to use.
The Internet has made all these parts readily available through the on-line catalogs of major suppliers such as Mouser, and DigiKey.  Other suppliers such as AliExpress and Bangood that offer a large selection of electronics components.  And don't forget eBay where you can get almost anything from around the world.  The Internet has also allowed small companies such as Adafruit, and SparkFun to build a successful business supplying specialty products to an ever growing MAKER market.  Related to Ham Radio, you have suppliers such as Kits and Parts, QRP-labs that offer products that are more directly related to RF projects.  

The Internet also gives you access to information on almost anything you might want.  From product data sheets to service manuals, and individual blogs,  almost anything is available.   Just add DIY to almost any search and you will be amazed with what is available. Want to build your own electron microscope, search "diy electron microscope".  Over 200K hits to choose from.  Of course only a very few might be useful, but there is some great information on what other people have built.

With the smaller solid state devices, construction methods have changed.  You no longer need a machine shop to build something, but it is really nice to have one.  Using methods such as "Manhattan ", "Ugly",or prototype circuit boards, some truly wonderful projects have been built.  My preferred method is to make a Printed Circuit Board.  Layout is very fast using one of the free or evaluation PCB software packages such as KiCad, Eagle, ExpressPCB.  Then using toner transfer, I can etch a nearly professional looking board in a few minutes. A little bit longer, and I can add a usable solder-mask. You will not have some of the nice features such as plated through holes for double sided boards, but with careful layout you can minimize these problems.  Some people have commented that this takes too long, compared to "Ugly" .  But, I have found that it is much easier to trace for errors on a PCB before building than to check something done "Ugly" after it is built.  
If you don't want to etch the board yourself, you can send the design off to one of the many PCB houses to have them made.  One of my favorites is OSHpark.  They take my Eagle file directly, and for $5 a square inch including shipping, I get three solder-masked double sided boards with plated through holes in about a week.  For larger quantities or size boards, I tried one of  Chinese board houses.  For less than $35 including shipping, I got 10  double sided solder-masked boards with plated through holes, around 10cm. by 10cm. in about two weeks. 
One comment I get is that it is getting harder to find through hole leaded components.  I have found that using surface mount devices SMD it is much easier and faster to build most of my projects.   I don't have to drill nearly as many holes in the boards I etch myself. If you use the larger size SMD components 1206 or 805 placement is quite easy.  If I don't have a component in SMD I can just layout a couple large pads, and solder on the leaded component after bending the leads.  If you don't want to go to SMD , you can check out the "Muppet" method championed by K7QO.  Using solder paste and a hot air gun, construction is much faster than having to stuff and then flip the board over to solder through hole components. 
All in all I will have to agree with Pete,"This is such a great time to be in the hobby".  I might even say that this is the "greatest" time to be in the hobby for the home builder.

Now that I am back home, it is time to think about some of the other projects I had started, and get busy working on them.

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