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Cabe Atwell

4/30/2014 04:10 PM EDT

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Top Free DIY Tools Every EE Needs
Every electrical engineer who does DIY projects knows that dozens of free resistor
calculators are out there that can save quite a bit of tedious work. Other simple tools can be
found, but traditionally the free tool arsenal would stop there. Sure, there are base
platforms such as SolidWorks and Autodesk, but what happens when they are missing a
feature needed at that exact moment?
Now we're seeing a relative explosion in free tools for engineering electronics. It is easy just
to hit the Net and use the myriad resources available. Some of those online tools prove to
be worthless, and it's back to blind searching or some paid tool. But free software extends
far beyond the functionality of a simple calculator.
To help sort out the nonsense from the useful online tools, check out the following list.
Calculatoredge: when one calculator isn't enough
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Calculator choices from Calculatoredge.
One of the more useful tools in an engineer's toolbox is a physical calculator. Why does it
seem to get lost when it's truly needed? Workstations usually save the day. Those included
in your OS of choice (Windows, iOS, Linux, etc.) are good for simple tasks but not so great
for other things, even in scientific mode.
Searching for the right one online will net you roughly 131 million choices. Which one are
you to choose when there are so many? Why not choose them all?
Almost all calculator versions known to humankind are located in one convenient site,
Calculatoredge. It boasts no fewer than a few hundred calculators for just about every field
imaginable (and perhaps some that are unimaginable), including electrical, mechanical,
civil, chemical, and even math. There's no need to search aimlessly for that obscure
number cruncher ever again. Some of the more complex calculators even come with some
rudimentary instructions.
SourceForge's Cedar Logic Simulator
SourceForge's Cedar Logic Simulator.
When it's time to test simple digital logic gates and registers or even some high-level
components, you can turn to SourceForge for some free online simulations with its Cedar
Logic Simulator (still in beta edition). Designing circuits is great and all, but will they function
correctly and perform when it counts? The Cedar Logic Simulator allows users to perform
test simulations at the transistor, register/transfer, gate, and other levels.
The software also can be used as an introductory tool for teaching logic design and an
entry platform for circuit design by allowing users to drag and drop gates, inversions, and
connections. There are also options for undo/redo and copy/paste functions. Projects can
even be exported to monochrome or color bitmap files for project integration.
SourceForge's main application window allows users to move back and forth through 10
different pages for multiple projects, making it one of the better free applications on the
Logisim 2.7.0, an alternative to Cedar Logic Simulator
Logisim 2.7.0.
SourceForge's Logic Simulator isn't the only free simulation tool available on the Internet.
Tools that rival its design and simulation applications include Carl Burch's Logisim logic
simulator. Students of the computer sciences often use the app as an introductory circuit
design/learning tool, but it's practical for use outside the classroom, as well.
Logisim incorporates some of the same features as Cedar, including design and simulation
platforms with preconfigured elements: AND, OR, NOT, etc. However, the software provides
more in-depth functionality, including a tool for drawing color-coded wiring connections that
make programming and debugging a little easier. One of the more interesting aspects of
Logisim is that it's portable and can be stored on removable storage media. It also can be
used on any Windows-based PC, and it runs immediately after you click on the program.
That's a luxury in today's install-but-with-malware world.
Qucs: Quite universal circuit simulator
Qucs: Quite universal circuit simulator.
Sometimes simple simulation is all that is called for after the design has been created.
There are more design simulators on the Internet than there are particles of sand on a
beach (not really, but you get the idea). Traversing all the offering would take forever, but
there are a few that stand out in terms of functionality, like Michael Magraf's Qucs (Quite
universal circuit simulator).
The open-source circuit simulator provides feedback for analog and digital components,
including S-parameter, AC/DC, transient, harmonic balance, Digital sim, and Parameter
sweeps. The initial interface is presented in GUI format. Analysis testing and diagrams can
viewed in myriad platforms, including Smith-Chart, Cartesian and totally Tabular (for those
who love the 1980s). Simple and to the point (with a host of options) is what Qucs is all
SmartSim running on the Raspberry Pi SBC
SmartSim running on the Raspberry Pi SBC.
Simple is one aspect that truly is functional when it comes to design and simulation, but
what if your skills are more advanced? Then perhaps Ashley Newson's SmartSim is what
you seek. The beauty of it is that it can be used by students and professionals with different
skill levels. Yes, SmartSim is a digital circuit design and simulation application, but it is more
in-depth than the ones mentioned earlier.
SmartSim allows users to create complex circuits using custom components and drop them
into other projects as if they were any other component. The final circuit design can be
used in any number of projects and subprojects without extended modifications. Completed
circuits can be tested utilizing the software's interactive feature, which allows exploration of
the design down to the hierarchical subcomponents while the circuit is in operation. One of
the more notable features of the application is that it's cross-platform capable, meaning that
it can run on Windows and Linux-based systems, including the Raspberry Pi.
Static Free Software's Electric VLSI design and testing software
Static Free Software's Electric VLSI design and testing software.
Who needs new school when we still have old school -- really, really old school?
That's right. What would this roundup be without Steven Rubin's Electric VLSI Design
System, which was released a whopping 34 years ago? Yes, the initial software has
changed hands over the years and has undergone multiple revisions, but the core remains
practically the same.
The design and simulation software is unique. It understands a host of analog and digital
technologies, including MOS (nMOS/CMOS), Bipolar, and even PCB. It can also utilize
graphical forms, as well, including schematics, artwork, and FPGA architectures. Simulation
tools include design/electrical rule checking, routing, Logical Effort, and LVS, making it a
great choice for old-school analog IC.
Don't confuse CoolSpice with Old Spice. One is for design and simulation, the other not so much.
CoolCAD is synonymous with semiconductor design and fabrication in the world of
photodetectors. However, the company also specializes in design and prototyping. To top it
off, it offers a host of free Spice (simulation program with integrated circuit emphasis) tools
for niche applications.
CoolSpice is an analog circuit simulator catering to CMOS designs and includes ngSpice (a
GUI-based schematics editor), a plotter application, and a text editor for netlists. Actually,
ngSpice is a software conglomerate of sorts. It incorporates three simulators for analog and
digital designs, including Spice3 (still going strong after 30 years), Cider (a marriage
between Spice3f5 and DISM) and Xspice (code modeling support and simulation of digital
components). NASA first used the software suite to simulate cryogenic environments for
CMOS-based electronics. The software is now used for silicon-carbide device models in
power electronics simulations.
Circuit Virtual Laboratory's Electronic and Electric Circuit Simulation
There's specific knowledge base simulation, and then there's overkill for those electronic
circuit design and simulations, which can be found at Circuit Virtual Laboratory.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, since its site offers tutorials, explanations for electronics
and circuit design, and simulation tools for novices and advanced users alike. It offers
tutorials for everything from fuzzy logic to complex number phasor linear calculus and every
conceivable thing in between. Simulation is also extensive, with free online tools and
calculators for bipolar transistor simulation, diode simulation, JFET/MOSFET transistor
simulation, and a host of electric simulations. Though the site does not feature a calculator
base like CalculatorEdge, it does cater to those with specific circuit design parameters in
TinyCAD may be small, but it packs a punch for design schematics.
TinyCAD does one thing and nothing else -- well, actually, it does two things, but why get
technical? The main purpose of the application is to let users design basic or complex
electronic or electric circuits. And it boats a massive 755 symbols under 42 libraries to help
get those designs created.
Everything users could possibly need is listed in those libraries, including drop-ins for logic
gates, connectors, analog circuits, microcontrollers, power sources, and mechanical
symbols. Every symbol can be edited to suit project needs, and users can even incorporate
their own customized symbols. Finished designs can be exported to a clipboard for printing.
The software even sports a feature that exports the user's circuit netlist in order to
manufacture the PCB. That's the software's second feature, and though it doesn't pack
everything under the sun (such as simulation), it does what it's meant to do extremely well.
DesignSpark PCB
DesignSpark PCB: Circuit design with PCB layout in one package.
What's circuit design without the PCB design into which it will be embedded? That's like
peanut butter without chocolate -- good separately but great when paired together. That's
precisely what DesignSpark PCB does. It's a free-to-use schematic capture and PCB layout
tool for electronic design automation.
The Windows-only software packs a schematic editor that allows users to draw up their
designs using multiple sheets and myriad component libraries for symbol drop-ins. Don't
have the symbol you need? No problem. There are myriad third-party tools that can be
added, and customized symbols can be used. Once the circuit design is finished, users can
incorporate them into a PCB layout schematic using the PCB Wizard.
One of the more interesting facets of the software is the auto placement of components and
routing tracks, which can save users a considerable amount of time in the design phase. A
cautionary note on auto placement: Unrouting a track can sometimes lead to inadvertently
deleting a component if you're not careful. Also, make sure you have the minimum
hardware requirements before using DSPCB. It can be a resource hog, depending on how
many libraries are open at any given time.
The gplEDA schematic design program prefers Linux-based OSs but will play with others.
Though DesignSpark PCB favors a Windows OS to run its software, gplEDA prefers Linux
systems to lay down the schematic designs. Just like DesignSpark, gplEDA lets users create
circuit designs using symbol drop-ins from multiple libraries and place their finished
products into a PCB layout for circuit integration.
Tools incorporated into gplEDA include Fritzing (created circuits can be incorporated on to
a virtual breadboard for editing), gEDA (circuit design, capture, simulation, prototyping, and
production), KiCAD (for circuit conversion to PCBs), Qucs (circuit simulation, complete with
GUI interface), and XCircuit (schematic conversion for publishing and manufacturing). The
software suite runs natively on Linux-based systems, but it will function on Windows systems
with an X-Server running in conjunction.
Dassault Systemes' DraftSight 2D CAD software app.
Yes, it's CAD-based design software. Yes, it's used to create, edit, and view the .dwg files
used to create project parts, but Dassault Systemes' DraftSight 2D CAD software app can
be used to design and export PCB layouts to the .DXF file format for manufacturing.
The interface is reminiscent of AutoCAD and has a similar collection of tools to get designs
ready for product incorporation or transfer to 3D representations. DraftSight is perfect for
those who want a sense of what the final turnout will be for project parts or designs that
incorporate their circuit and PCB designs. In some rare occasions, even circuits need to be
drawn in a simple 2D CAD application. There is always a need to sketch something up in
CAD. This is an absolutely essential part of the electrical engineer's arsenal.
eDrawings for 2D and 3D representations of project parts.
If you're trying to get a feel for what the end project or part will look like, eDrawings may be
just what you need. The software allows users to see what their designs look like from any
number of CAD platforms, such as SolidWorks and Autodesk. It even supports project
animation with intelligent interpretation tools, including a 3D pointer, virtual folding, and
animation drawing views.
Newfangled Solutions' Mach3 CNC control package.
When it comes time to manufacture your project, there are two ways to go about it: Do it
yourself or get someone else to do it for you. For the DIY crowd, there are many CNC
software options. Most come at a price. Some are free, though with limitations.
On the free (or trial) end, Newfangled Solutions offers a trial version of its Mach3 platform,
which lets users input up to 500 lines of Gcode before requiring an upgrade. Essentially,
Mach3 turns the user's PC into a six-axis CNC control center (provided the user has the
CNC hardware). It allows for direct file (.DXF, .BMP, .JPG, etc.) imports, auto generates
Gcode (via Wizards or LazyCam) with interactive Gcode display, and has customizable
macros and M-codes. Best of all, the software is fully functional with lathes, mills, routers,
lasers, and even engravers, so incompatibility is slim to none.
Unfortunately, the software is currently for Windows only, so Linux users will have to beg,
borrow, or steal a machine outfitted with the OS until it's been converted.
Outsource your project manufacturing with CustomPartNet.
Of course, if you have no manufacturing hardware, or if cost isn't a factor, outsourcing your
project manufacturing needs is the way to go, and CustomPartNet has you covered.
The site contains cost estimation tools for materials, capacities, part lots, processes, and
everything in between. There's no need to worry about the material your project uses; the
site has manufacturing processes for everything, including polymers, metals, and even
adhesives, along with time estimates for each. It also provides case studies for cost
analysis, part redesigns, and product development. It also has an extensive list of suppliers
for everything from parts to manufacturers, so you can go with who you want with what you
want, as long as you can afford it.
Keep in mind: A resource is a tool, too.
Cabe Atwell is an engineer and freelance writer for EE Times, Design News, and EDN.
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