Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Making a new product in a month - An Engineers Life in 140 Characters or Less

A new product always starts with an idea.

In late November, I had been reading about various ways of producing a low cost VGA video output from a microcontroller.  Having dabbled with VGA on the ZPUino soft core processor on the Papilio Duo from Gadget Factory, I realised that if any small microcontroller could be assisted to produce stunning video effects and support a sophisticated user interface at minimal cost - then it would be a major innovative step.

I read about the new EVE (Embedded Video Engine) ICs from FTDI in Glasgow and ordered a dev-kit in early December. At the same time I started work on a board layout for a new minimalist VGA shield.

1st Draught - Will it all Fit?
I had been musing throughout the Autumn about a new board format of just 50mm x 50mm  - in order to make full use of the special offers from the low cost Chinese board houses - so my first attempt was to see if I could even get the VGA and PS/2 connectors onto the standard board template. Above is my efforts - dated November 26th.

Over the 1st weekend of December (5th, 6th) my ideas blossomed, and grew - and so by the end of the the first week of December I had a 56 pin QFN package footprint worked out plus something that approximated to a FTDI EVE chip on a board. With the basics in place - it was just a case of finishing the layout and tidying up.

Main FT812 IC partly routed

By the 9th of December - the design was nearly ready for sending off - and this was further reinforced by a message from my board-house saying that pcb designs sent in before the midnight on the 10th of December would be delivered before Christmas - and with a 10% discount.

Almost ready for prototype production
On December the 10th - a very busy day to get 2 new designs delivered to @Ragworm by midnight. This tweet hints at the urgency that Thursday

So the pcbs went off to Ragworm on the night of 10th December, and then we were in for a bit of a wait, until they were delivered before Christmas. Also on the evening of the 10th, I forwarded the EagleCAD files to my friend James Bowman (@GameDuino) who lives near San Francisco - so that he could have a go at having a duplicate set of pcbs made - independently of mine.

In the mean time I got on with another pcb design - this time for a low energy Bluetooth device - and spent 3 wonderful days up in North Wales at #BothyHack3 - where I designed some, yet more pcbs.

On the 22nd of December, I received a package containing the prototype boards - I tried a bare board for size on one of the FPGA platforms we were considering:

So that evening I built up the first prototype:

Christmas activities then got in the way for a few days - but on the 24th James reported that his pcbs had just been delivered in California from China - having been held up for over 24 hours in Fremont, California:

So with Christmas almost upon us - Festivities kind of impeded progress - also known as a well deserved rest. I have done 20 unique board designs in the last 24 months......

So on the Morning of 28th December, I crawled out of the post Christmas hangover haze and thought about exercising the new VGA hardware.  It took longer than I thought - but by 1am, and a couple of false starts - the VGA hardware sprung into life and created its first image.

From large red blobs served in the early hours of the morning I progressed to a simple text display:

But then on Tuesday evening - James came back with the stunning tweet that he had pushed the resolution up to 1024 x 768  60Hz. So at that point I suggested that I get my coat.....

A few hours later, James was coding furiously and Felix was soldering - the picture from California says it all - all produced by the FT812 EVE chip - and James' custom Forth processor:

With only a couple of days remaining of 2015, I barricaded myself in the back bedroom - and bashed out an greatly improved pcb layout - all ready for manufacturing next week when the world wakes up from its Festive Haze:

                                               Introducing - on New Year's EVE  - EVITA

I hope you have enjoyed this light-hearted look at how modern engineers collaborate across global frontiers and timezones - using social media to full advantage - in order to expediate the development of a new fun product.  From concept to first prototype executing code and exceeding all expectations in just a month.  Shouldn't we all be working smarter, not harder?

And remember - when it's 2am in Britain - it's only "Beer o'clock" in Northern California!

Thanks to all my friends and colleagues in Kent, Sussex, Denver and Northern California who have helped make this happen so quickly.

Now off to the Monson Road Social Club- for some New Years festivities and the odd beer or three.

Happy New Year - and all the best for 2016!

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