It's a Wonderful Time to Be a Maker

by Bob Dukish

In the introduction to my book Coding the Arduino, I paraphrased the saying, “...we stand on the shoulders of giants." It is a concept attributed to Sir Isaac Newton from his paraphrasing of writings dating back to the twelfth century. I also mention that because of humankind’s past achievements, our current knowledge and technological progress is growing at exponential speed. It may soon get to the point that artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a part of our everyday lives. This is a scary scenario for me to think about since I am a big fan of science fiction. Supercomputers and robots ruling the world with humans as their subordinates is plausible and scary stuff to me. As I am older than dirt and have actually worked on equipment that used point-to-point wiring before modern circuit boards were developed, I still marvel at technology using semiconductor diodes and transistors instead of tubes. Perhaps it is my fascination with the progression of technology that makes me a maker, and with the ready availability of low-cost parts for projects, now is a great time to tinker.

As makers, we are in the sweetest spot imaginable. Thanks to the Internet, we have direct access to the work of the giants that have come before us. We have technical publications in both digital form and in hard copy. We additionally have a helpful community in the makerspace and correspondence with our peers through forums and email. And thanks to free trade policies, we have access to low-cost parts for building projects for both education and for proof-of-concept. Mechanical parts can even be manufactured on home 3D printers, and some of the printed parts could have not been manufactured through extrusion, casting, milling or other traditional processes. The sweet spot we find ourselves in today is a dream of past generations.

Microcontrollers and programmable logic controllers (PLC’s) have been used in industry for quite a few years, and have given us the advantage of automating many manufacturing procedures. With CNC machining, for example, many mundane manufacturing steps are pre-programmed and performed automatically, thus eliminating repetitive tasks from human operators. One of the marvelous devices that we have access to as makers are low-cost processors such as the Arduino. It allows us to use an open source coding system which can produce very professional results. While a genuine Arduino development board may cost around $25, other versions may be purchased for a fraction of that cost. Once the code is up and running, the stand-alone ATmega328 controller chip can be purchased for a dollar or two. The processing power is not the greatest, but through efficient coding, it can produce remarkable results. If one is wanting to run applications similar to a computer, for a few dollars more Raspberry Pi would be a better choice. But even for advanced projects utilizing the Internet of Things (IOT), add-on modules are available to extend the functionally of the basic Arduino.

My latest projects have been to prototype products for communications and for highway safety. I am asking much from the Arduino. In my projects, it needs to sense and react to sounds, weather conditions, and manual activation through infrared optics and radio links. Luckily, very inexpensive add-on devices such as audio boards with a microphone and amplifier, IR receivers, and radio transmitter/receiver modules are available. These and many other sensors and modules help us as makers to prototype complex devices within a reasonable price range.

I only have a few negative thoughts to share about the design and prototype process using add-on modules. It’s fairly easy to find yourself running in circles in a troubleshooting dilemma wondering if a malfunction is a hardware or software problem. This is very common when dealing with transmitters and receivers, and with the recent popularity for makers to get involved with IOT devices, you may find yourself having issues with wireless links. My advice extends to any complex add-on part that you buy. It may be helpful to run an incoming test on the part to assure that it is performing as it should. Before using the part in a project, designing a simple circuit on a breadboard and writing a short test program could save you from hours of troubleshooting. In the IOT link example, after deciding on the type of link as either IR, 433 MHz radio, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi, a quick part performance evaluation could save you a great deal of unnecessary aggravation. Another issue to watch out for, especially when dealing with radio frequencies, is wiring connections creating issues with device performance due to stray capacitance and inductance. As I have found out the hard way, even once your project works on a breadboard, transferring it to a circuit board may produce erratic operation. The trick, in that case, is to try not to run traces carrying high-speed signals close in parallel orientation in order to minimize capacitive coupling and to avoid long wiring lengths to minimize inductive coupling.     

Through websites like eBay, Amazon, and others, very intricate add-on modules and devices can be purchased for amazingly low prices. With much of the material coming from overseas manufacturers producing the items in very high quantity, my advice for performing an incoming test is to ensure quality and reliability. My biggest problem has been with poor quality 433 MHz radio links. When they work, they work great, but there is a wide variation in performance quality. To keep costs low, the manufacturers may not be doing enough final testing. With that said, when you are only paying a dollar or two for a complex part, the onus is on you to determine compatibility with your project. The subject of trade and off-shoring manufacturing is a topic for another time, but for now, it is safe to say that as part of the value chain we are producing value-added items. We are using our creativity to develop new and interesting projects which adds to the worldwide exponential increase of technology. Having grown up as a child in a steel mill town hurt by overseas trade, I can relate to tariffs and the complex trade issues of the day. My analogy is that an artist uses paints, brushes, and canvas to produce a work of art. As a maker, you are doing something very similar by using an Arduino, electronic parts, and a breadboard. The advantage we makers now have of receiving complex low-cost parts at our doorstep means we can produce creative and beautiful designs.

About the Author

Bob Dukish has been working in the computers and electronics field for over 35 years. He served in the military, worked as an electronic components engineer, holds a number of patents, and taught engineering at both the high school and college levels. He has two Associate Degrees in technology, a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics from Syracuse University, as well as Master’s Degrees from both Kent State University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His last degree was earned at the age of 54, and he considers himself to be a lifelong learner.

This article was contributed by Bob Dukish, author of Coding the Arduino.