So after seeing Atmel in the parking lot, and a hexapod 3-D printer powered by Atmel, I meet Eric Wilner, a local Silicon Valley engineer. Eric pointed to some Atmel-based Arduino boards we had on display. He said: “Those are big boards for such a little chip.”
I knew he was setting me up for something, so I did not bother to point out that Arduino boards are great for prototyping precisely because they are big enough to add stuff to, including the Arduino Shield add-on boards. Then Eric pulls a cigarette-sized board out and shows me his Atmel-powered Geiger counter.
I was delighted to see such a great example of miniaturization, since Atmel makes some physically tiny parts that can do a lot of processing, thanks to their Harvard Architecture and the fact that they execute most instructions on a single clock.
Having been a consultant that specialized in quick-turn design and prototyping, I was duly impressed by Eric’s great work. It’s getting easier and easier to make prototypes. Sure, you start off with an Arduino or an Atmel Xplained demo board. You get your code working, and then lay out a purpose-built board. I liked OrCAD 9.3, a lot of pals have switched to Altium, not liking the new OrCAD, which has a crippleware Allegro as the layout package.
Once you get the schematic and layout done you can send the design to a PCB (printed circuit board) fab house. I like local outfit ProtoExpress. Sunstone up in Oregon is great, and they offer a free layout program, PCB123, that is free as long as you make the boards at Sunstone. You can buy the Gerbers for 30 or 40 bucks if you do want to take the design elsewhere. Also there is Advanced Circuits in Colorado. They do good work and have a free on-line design rule checker, FreeDFM (design for manufacturing) for your Gerber files. All three of these fab houses have relationships with assembly houses who can stuff your board with components.
Me, I like to build at least 3 boards myself, to see any problems. Then you can have subsequent lots assembled. ProtoExpress also has a partner fab in China that they guarantee can make the same fine-line high-tech boards as ProtoExpress makes in Silicon Valley. So if you want some really large volumes, Proto Express can help set you up, while keeping you in prototypes you can get in a day or two.