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Reader Question: Electrical Engineers, What Is Your Relationship with Maker Boards?

May 27, 2019 by Kate Smith

RPi, Arduino, BeagleBone. There are many maker boards—but have you, as an EE, ever used one? Share your stories!

RPi, Arduino, BeagleBone. There are many maker boards—but have you, as an EE, ever used one? Share your stories!

The definition of a "maker" is hazy. While we at AAC always refer to those who "make" electronics projects, there are plenty of woodworkers and crafts-makers who refer to themselves as "makers" without pause. 

More complicated than that is the differentiation between makers and professional electronics designers, especially when it comes to hardware designed to serve a specific demographic.

We turn to you to tell us your stories of the situations—if any—you've used a maker board in a professional setting. First, we'll talk about which boards are maker-focused and then we'll discuss where they may (or may not) fit into the professional design process.

Whether you're stalwartly against the use of non-professional boards in prototyping or whether you think maker boards are underutilized in design, let us know your thoughts and stories in the comments below.

 

The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. Image used courtesy of the Raspberry Pi Foundation

A Cast of Maker Board Characters

What do we mean by "maker board" in the first place? There are hundreds of boards and platforms for makers on the market, many of them open-source.

Here are some of the most common that you may be familiar with:

  • Raspberry Pi (or RPi, if you're savvy): The Raspberry Pi is technically an SBC, a single-board computer. The classic RPi made waves due to its low cost (around $35 USD) and, notably, its rich community of open-source software developers.
  • Arduino: Arduino's appeal is primarily that it's a microcontroller, an Atmel, and that it's uncommonly affordable, as low as $5 for a board. Hailed as a learning tool around the world, Arduino has released tens of modules to add Wi-Fi, reduce board space, and even bring FPGAs to makers. Arduino also represents an opportunity for business-minded designers, including some EEs, who have created an entire ecosystem of shields, caps, and hats to extend the Arduino's capabilities. Unlike the RPi, both Arduino software and hardware are open-source.
  • BeagleBoard: The BeagleBoard is another example of an SBC that makers have flocked to which is open-source to boot. Members of the BeagleBone family of boards are (at least loosely) color-coded: Black for classic hobbyist information, Green for use with connectors from SeeedStudio, and Blue for robotics.
  • Literally hundreds of others: Adafruit, Sparkfun, SeeedStudio, C.H.I.P., Particle, ODROID, and many other companies have established themselves as mainstays in the maker world. Even computer companies like ASUS (see: the ASUS Tinker Board) and distributors like Digi-Key partnering with Adafruit (see the Digi-Key Metro) have developed maker-focused boards. And then there's the host of "pies"—Orange Pi, Banana Pi, and more.

 

The BeagleBone Black. Image used courtesy of BeagleBoard

 

There are plenty of alternatives available. If you have a favorite we missed, please let us know in the comments.

Maker Boards in Professional Settings?

There are several places that an engineer could feasibly touch a maker board in the design process. Before we ask you to weigh in, let's take a look at some of the places that could occur.

The most obvious place that an EE may choose to interact with a maker board is during the sourcing or component assessment portion of the design process. From the EVAL-ADICUP360 from Analog Devices to the STMicroelectronics NUCLEO series, major semiconductor companies have been making evaluation boards for their MCUs Arduino-compatible. This suggests that, to some extent, there is an expectation that professional EEs probably have at least one such board laying around the office or lab.

 

Screenshot from Analog Devices

 

Aside from help in utilizing an evaluation board, there are theoretically other places in the design process that a maker board could be used by a professional. Most notably, maker boards may be useful in prototyping or creating a proof of concept for a design as system requirements are determined. 

There are even some varied accounts of maker boards being used in final products or used in large-scale systems.

According to a March Forbes article on Sony's use of Raspberry Pis in industrial settings, "Hotel chains, garbage collectors and factories are using the device more commonly now, making up 50% of end customers, and in some cases the Pi is undercutting the industrial monitoring equipment sold by bigger companies."

So the attractiveness for industry is accessibility, low cost, and ease-of-use. 

The question, then, is does this attractiveness extend to you as a professional engineer.


 

So tell us your story. Have you used maker boards in your career? Or do you think they have a place in the professional world?

12 Comments
  • D
    daymooncz May 28, 2019

    I use Arduino for quick idea verification or to prove a concept. Main development platform are stm32f0, stm32f3 and stm32f4. I started with Discovery boards 10 years ago or so and I am used to live with st.com environment completely. As IDE I use Openstm32/ac6 or STM32CubeIde recently. Former for older MCUs and letter for the newest ones.
    I have never used RPi. I won the BeagleBone Black last year in the WE-Midcom Off the clock design challenge but I do not like it at all. I probably need to have a full control over the hardware.

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  • vignesh waran 3 May 28, 2019

    we are developing TOUCH SCREEN PLC or HMI DISPLAY using SBC (a single-board computer), if we finished it successfully we will port it to industrial grade variant of the same broad.
    as of now we are buying TOUCH SCREEN PLC or HMI DISPLAY which comes with own software developing environment to develop, we asked feature with WiFi,Ethernet, displaying video, real time graphs, they said it would cost 1000$,
    but if we used this maker broad (SBC) and buy capacitive touch screen (with industrial grade), and use any open source GUI library , we can finish the product less than 250$

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  • J
    jubal6666 May 29, 2019

    I use them a ton for research projects at the university. (I’m a graduating senior). That’s a pretty recent change. 2 years ago when I started doing undergraduate research, most professors were not impressed with them. Now, almost every project has some form of sbc, or microcontroller add-on. That kind of started changing after one of my sensor packages for artic research made airtime on Good Morning America. Since then, it’s been a buzzword and I’ve been inundated with research partnerships. I’m working on 5-6 projects with them already and have a few more in the works. I’m using them for everything from a final product for mapping sand dunes with the geography department to prototyping sensors for surgical devices for the school of medicine that will be replaced with medical grade components later.

    If you aren’t seeing them where you work now, you probably will be. The kids that you hire will bring them if nothing else. From my perspective at the university level it’s been a great thing to see the staff open up to their use. A lot of the research that’s being done already can benefit from the ability to rapidly build some sensor, or some custom tool. It seems like everyday I get an email that starts with some version of, “Wouldn’t it be great if…”. To me, the best part of that is being able to say yes.

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    • E
      ecruz480 May 29, 2019
      Can confirm, currently in university looking to develop my own SBC for testing spaceflight hardware. We have used boards developed by companies such as Gomspace but it is really helpful to look at the cost benefit of commercial off-the-shelf components instead of cutting edge hardware. It is very reassuring to know you can test, debug, and possibly destroy a SBC for <$100 instead of one which costs +$10000. I believe SBCs are a great research tool which continually save both time and money, as well as a tool which can and will start replacing many outdated embedded systems.
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  • K
    kkemper May 30, 2019

    If the system I’m designing uses a microcontroller (stm32, atmega, etc.) I’ll just make a board for it and directly test my design rather than waste time fiddling with perf-board (never use breadboard).  For work systems that need a big arm processor (like >1GHz) I’ll only use a “maker” board as a surrogate for a more expensive and larger dev kit to make sure my software stack and features like bluetooth drivers will work and perform well for my application.  If the “maker board is small and simple enough (like the beaglebone) I might even use it in early full system prototypes.  I won’t use raspberry pi for anything since it’s nearly impossible to get the broadcom chips.

    For personal projects I’ll still generally design my own board for microcontrollers if the part count isn’t huge since it’s cheap to get PCBs made these days and I actually enjoy soldering little 0402 parts.

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  • I have seen Beagle bone black in one commercial project in one company I have worked. It has survived in the field for 5-6 years without any issues. I am not 100% confident as these maker boards may not be tested in all possible worst case scenarios. I am In my current office, they have used RPi’s for a new product and I am trying to navigate them towards RPi Compute Module (CM3+), which is a great idea from RPi org. One main issue I see with maker boards is the connector mechanism. I wouldn’t trust a USB micro as a power connector for an industrial application. The contact friction is not something we can relay in the long run. It has to be positively lockable. So I am pretty happy to trial CM3 which kind of gives the best of both worlds.

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  • J
    jlwayt May 31, 2019

    LOVE IT! It’s A) a cheap means of evaluating a microcontroller for a product, B) a rapid prototyping platform that gets projects up and through proof-of-concept quickly and more importantly C) an inexpensive, readily available means of training the next generation on how to write code, think logically and in sequence and how to interact with hardware and software. Us “old-timers” remember when microcontroller development boards were hundreds of dollars as well as the software to use them. Today, the software is free and the boards are less than the cost of a fast food lunch, meaning that far more people can learn how to use micros without having to be professional engineers or at least engineering students in a university. This is a major revolution in technology that barely gets mentioned in the press.

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  • S
    stevebj.ee May 31, 2019

    I’ve used various Raspberry Pi boards for some of my personal projects which include a fully autonomous sprinkler system to my home security system.  A Raspberry Pi Zero-W for $10 is a very useful tool.

    I also use an Arduino for controlling the solder reflow profile temperature for my $25 toaster oven. Hey, when you need SMD devices for projects around your house. A $25 reflow oven comes in handy. It’s difficult to find DIP or through hole parts these days.

    At work, we have BeagleBone Blacks at some customer premises to use as network telemetry. They simply kick off some simple tests to send X packets and measure the response times. Then send a report to a server which we use to collect the network performance data and provide a presentation layer which allows one to see any anomalies.  A cost effective way to get this telemetry.  A commercial product that does a similar thing cost $1200 each.  We implemented it for $50 and some of my coding.

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  • Mattr59 May 31, 2019

    I have two degrees, EE and CS, but I mostly do embedded programming. We use RPi quite often, usually to test our system. I was the first in the group when developing a module that would receive/transmit I2C data from another device we did not have. I mocked it all up on the RPi. The customer was impressed and purchased the RPi code. Now we have several RPis on the latest project emulating a server which the customer will eventually supply. I also use ESP8266’s for little projects I build at home. I used to use Microchip stuff before all these boards came out. Or sometimes I’d write stuff in C# on the PC and make an adapter.

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  • W
    wseltzer May 31, 2019

    I use Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards in my high school and college STEAM classes. (Robotics, Wearable Technology, Haptic User Interfaces, ...)

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  • Heath Raftery June 07, 2019

    Very important topic this. The proliferation of RPis in industry is extraordinary. I run an electronic product design consultancy so we largely design products based on various microcontrollers, carefully coordinating power consumption, code complexity, tolerances and form factor. Of course we do a heap of prototyping and teaching on Arduinos, RPi’s and BBone’s. But more and more of our customers come to us having already prototyped on a Raspberry Pi or similar. It’s almost always the “wrong” tool for the job, in the sense that you don’t need a computer to do an embedded control application. These same industrial customers also come to us with expectations that are eerily similar to consumer devices - GPS, cellular, WiFi, Ethernet, user-friendly OS. If you can’t plug a keyboard into it then it can’t be tech, it seems, even if the thing will (should) never see a human over the course of its useful life.

    In the end we’re following our customers - so what if you’re consuming 10W to do a 0.5W job? So what if there’s 4 USB ports that will never be used in the product? So what if you’ve got a desktop operating system running flat out so that a 20 line Python script can do useful work? At the end of the day there’s two major benefits that outweigh the drawbacks: they’re cheap (we’d need to be making millions of units to compete) and the vastly celebrated new world of “engineers” (app and web developers) are comfortable programming them.

    On the other hand I predict in a couple of years we’ll see the great SD card collapse, as millions of unattended RPi’s start failing due to SD card deaths. Thousands of embedded electronics engineers will shrug their shoulders and say, “yep, but at least they’re cheap”.

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  • O
    Okechukwu Juliet June 12, 2019

    Please, how about students just coming up in EE field.? I know nothing about all these…can there be a group for starters or something that can just put us on the right start.. please carry us along

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