“Modern Designs Require Modern Tools”: PCB Design Platform Uses AR for Design and Debug
inspectAR offers engineers a revolutionary new method of interacting with PCBs using the power of augmented reality.
AR-based design platform inspectAR recently got a big upgrade, accelerating its timeline to introduce engineers to a revolutionary new method of designing and debugging PCBs. How will this tool impact team-based design efforts moving forward? And how can it potentially change the way we create products in the future? All About Circuits interviewed inspectAR’s CEO Mihir Shah to find out.
What is inspectAR?
inspectAR is an augmented reality platform that superimposes PCB tracks onto an existing PCB and shows information regarding component placement and values. The platform is the result of combining two separate development programs: DebuggAR, which brought AR technology to mobile phones, and inspectAR, which catered specifically to computing systems, including Linux and Mac.
The new system, which adopted the inspectAR name, is platform-independent, making it usable on multiple devices including Windows desktops, MacOS, Android devices, and on Apple TestFlight. The software reads Gerber information, one of the most common industry-standard file types, and is compatible with a wide range of electronic design suites, including Eagle and KiCad.
Superimposing PCB tracks onto an image of a PCB is not uncommon, but inspectAR does this in real-time. The overlay on the board tracks as the board is moved and rotated, even showing the underside traces if the board is flipped.
What’s New Since DebuggAR?
We previously discussed an earlier iteration of inspectAR, DebuggAR, when the app first entered Beta. The app is now available to working designers around the world.
In addition to its smartphone and desktop compatibility, inspectAR now accepts a broader range of manufacturing inputs, including IPC2581b and Gerber X2. The updated app also allows custom overlays for work instructions. Developers can try inspectAR from two separate packages: a free, publically-available version and a “pilot program” for entire organizations. The free version gives single users mobile access to inspectAR with pre-loaded “sponsored” boards from well-known distributors like Arduino, Digi-Key, Crowd Supply, and GroupGets.
The app now offers pre-loaded boards. Screenshot used courtesy of inspectAR
Shah assured that “Even if users don’t have a board, they can point their mobile camera at a picture of one of the boards on their computer and get a feel for the tool.”
Shah believes the platform will expand in such a way that if designers have “an issue with a board or IC from a major semiconductor, OEM, or parts distributor, he or she will be able to immediately contact [that distributor] and have them see and experience exactly what you are experiencing.”
The pilot program currently requires a one-time fee and allows organizations to test inspectAR. This package supports unlimited users, unlimited devices, and unlimited projects.
Designed for Simpler Debugging
For designers who are trying to debug a circuit, inspectAR aims to provide a way to avoid switching between schematic view, PCB view, and then the physical device. Instead, they can look at the physical device and see the overlaid location of all the traces, component types, and values. This augmentation also helps find traces that may be partly invisible due to the choice of solder mask color (think black solder masks).
One common issue with electronics manufacturing is that some components require hand soldering, for example, when designers discover an inability to reflow or require through-hole parts.
Designers can select on a component, create its associated overlay, and find relevant part information. Screenshot used courtesy of inspectAR
In these situations, costly mistakes may occur on the production line. Some parts can be too difficult to de-solder and rescuing the board takes far too long. These errors occur because the orientation of a component is unclear or the wrong component is soldered in. inspectAR allows production line workers to see an augmented board over the physical device, showing the correct orientation of the components and their values.
This may dramatically reduce the number of mistakes, increase the speed at which boards are produced, and eliminate the need for specific product training.
Resources for PCB Design
Using augmentation to superimpose Gerber files onto a physical device means that designers won’t need component idents or silk layers. This not only saves cost (assuming that the layer is omitted during fabrication) but also helps obscure and protect PCB designs. inspectAR is also said to enable more complex and compact PCB designs.
While prototypes will still need contact pins for serial and programming connections, the PCBs do not need wide-spaced traces with specific mask colors that clearly show where traces are since they are superimposed onto the design. As the user moves the board, the overlay tracks precisely. The user can flip the board over and the app will show all the nets, components, and layers through the user’s screen.
Designers can then click on any component and the app will instantly map onto the part, giving information like pinout and datasheets that are directly powered from Digi-Key and Mouser.
inspectAR allows designers to select components and view the datasheets for those components. Screenshot used courtesy of inspectAR
The user can then, for example, track where a pin goes or where a signal travels throughout the board to simplify inspection.
“The search algorithm we’ve designed is very robust,” Shah added. “It connects directly to your bill of materials that you upload.”
(Virtually) Bringing Remote Teams Into the Lab
When circuits go wrong, it can be helpful to bring additional engineers onto the job. However, this process of enlisting other engineers, especially remote engineers, can also be impractical and expensive.
“Before, you could take a picture of the board, write some notes, and hope the other engineer understands,” Shah recalled. “But they likely won't because boards are very complex and there are only one or two people generally that are intimately familiar with it.”
inspectAR’s technology allows a designer halfway around the world to view the board in real-time while seeing an overlay of the tracks, components, and values.
Shah remarked, “inspectAR provides the first real lens into the EE’s workbench.”
inspectAR asserts that its platform helps with every step of the hardware prototyping process. Image used courtesy of inspectAR
This communication platform may save design teams large costs because it can expand their market for contractors and help them find solutions more quickly.
Shah shared an anecdote in which this tool, a “tele-engineering” platform, could be particularly useful:
“Say I’m debugging my boards at 2 a.m. in the lab, and I can't figure something out. I’m the only one left there. With inspectAR, you click a button and you’ll immediately be on screenshare with another EE who can help you with something. They see exactly what you’re seeing in real-time.”
What’s Coming Next?
In the next few months, the company will allow users to upgrade to a premium “professional” package, which grants users unlimited PCB projects, custom integrations, and shared projects, among other features. Another important feature in development is “work orders,” or the ability to build your own test procedures and instructions about a board and send them over to other people. Shah asserts that this feature will “change the way electrical engineers behave and collaborate in the lab.”
Although engineers can (and have) debugged and designed circuit boards without any AR technology, the inspectAR team feels this new platform will help engineers progress evermore complex systems faster.
“Modern engineering and design work require modern tools,” Shah said.
Example of an overlay using inspectAR. Screenshot used courtesy of inspectAR
Because inspectAR overlays every aspect of a design directly onto the board, the platform allows more intuitive interactions with PCBs. Engineers can use the tool to inspect, assemble, debug, rework, and instruct in one place. Notably, inspectAR is not replacing any current tools or design processes.
“inspectAR allows [engineers] to continue doing the work they love doing, but allows the work to be done far more collaboratively with greater speed and ease of documentation,” Shah said.