Welcome to Black Mesa Labs

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Welcome to Black Mesa Labs – an active member of the Maker Movement.   In December 2013  I started Black Mesa Labs when I discovered the design flow between OSH-Park and CopperConnection, enabling me to make custom PCBs quickly and at very little expense. Black Mesa Labs is about taking an idea for an electronic hardware and/or software technology and creating it DIY from start to finish. Some projects help me be a more productive electrical engineer, some add features to my house or car, some are just for the technical challenge and fun. The Black Mesa Labs motto is “Delivering the future – 2 layers at a time”.

About Me : My name is Kevin Hubbard and I am an Electrical Engineer living in Issaquah WA, USA.  My interest in technology and electronics began in the late 1970’s as child. I cut my teeth on a RadioShack 100in1 kit, Forrest M. Mims III Engineer’s Notebooks, 7400 TTL and 4000 CMOS Logic, Steve Ciarcia Circuit Cellar publications and of course Steve Wozniak’s Apple ][ schematics and interfacing custom wire wrap boards to my TRS-80 Model-I and Apple 2 computers. My professional career started in the 1990’s writing embedded software and developing circuit boards for things like HC11 and 68K microprocessors. The last 20 years I have been developing computer chips ( digital ASICs and FPGAs ) full time. I still like to dabble in circuit board design however and also software development – which is why I started Black Mesa Labs. Black Mesa Labs provides me the creative freedom to take an idea, design a circuit board, purchase and assemble the electronic components onto it and write and integrate software for controlling it. I am very much inspired by the history behind the Apple 2Sparkfun, Arduino, RaspberryPi, the book The Innovator’s Dilemma , and Eric Schmidt‘s 70/20/10 rule for managing innovation at Google. In 1992 Linus Torvalds wrote of Linux “I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional”.  That home hobby project now runs 84% of the worlds total market for smart phones ( as the foundation for Android ).

About OSH-Park : OSH-Park is a multi-project Printed Circuit Board service that charges $0 NRE and only charges $5 per square inch for 2-layer PCBs and $10 per square inch for 4-layer PCBs. Amazingly, shipping is free as well and arrives from Oregon is just a couple of days.  A 1″sq PCB literally costs only $5 to make. I have done 4-layer PCBs, but at 2x the cost and 2x the fab time, I generally make even the most complex designs in 2-layers. It is a fun challenge resulting in a unique low cost design.

About CopperConnection : CopperConnection is a low cost PCB layout tool.  The key features for me are that the $49 version  imports ExpressPCB ( Version 7.0.2 and older only ) design files ( a tool I already know from 15 years of experience ) and exports Gerber files in the format that OSH-Park expects.

Using the two, I have the tools and PCB fab flow to be able to design fully custom circuit boards in just a couple of hours, upload the designs to OSH-Park and order them with Paypal for typically $5-$10 per design. In about 2 weeks I receive a purple envelope in the mail containing 3 PCBs of my design ready for assembly. Before discovering this design flow, designing a custom circuit board would cost me $50-$100 and I found myself only designing 1/2 a dozen in a 10 year time frame. With the $0 NRE, low effort and low area cost of the CopperConnection to OSH-Park flow I have designed and fabbed 110 designs in the 12 month period since Black Mesa Labs has started. BML is funded entirely by “Beer Money” ( don’t worry, I still have money for beer too ). My budget and total cost of operations is less than $100 USD a month, or about the cost of a single meal out with the family.

Specialty : My specialty is designing and assembling very small 2 layer FPGA breakout boards that are both powered and configurable over USB using an industry standard FTDI serial cable. My favorite board right now is the “Nano6 Skinny” which at 1.5″x1″ is barely larger than the TQFP144 package of the Xilinx Spartan6 XC6SLX9. It is a 2-layer PCB with the FPGA on top, LDOs and oscillator on the bottom and 0.100″ connectors surrounding. Xilinx ( and Altera ) have gone entirely BGA for new FPGA families, so I have started transitioning to Lattice FPGA designs using QFN packages ( compatible with 2-layers and Maker technology ).

Component Procurement : Typically this just involves Digikey and Mouser orders.  I try to standardize all my designs to minimize component inventory. For example, bypass caps 0.1uF 0603, bulk caps 10uF 0805, resistors 0805s due to a surplus inventory on hand. Digikey ships US Mail from Minnesota to Washington state in just a couple of days for just a couple of dollars which saves a bunch on shipping ( otherwise $10 – $15 typically ).

Board Assembly : SMT assembly down to 0603 resistors and caps and 0.5mm pitch QFPs using a microscope and soldering iron. On my Weller iron I use a screwdriver tip. I find that pencil tips just don’t get hot enough. My soldering process involves lots of flux, lots of solder and lots of wick for cleanup.

Chip Design : Verilog and VHDL RTL development using free Xilinx WebKit software targeting Spartan3 and Spartan6 FPGAs. Unfortunately Xilinx has decided to only make BGA FPGAs going forward, so Spartan6 in TQFP-144 package will be the last hand solderable FPGA available from Xilinx for projects from Black Mesa Labs.

Software Design : C, Perl, Python, Powershell usually in either a Linux or Windows environment. Embedded C experience with HC11, 68K, ARM, AVR, etc but try to avoid due to time overhead and fragility of tool chains.

Development Environment : Headless Linux workstation running FreeNX and a Windows7 desktop with NX Client. Network storage to a Synology 4 bay NAS with 3 2.5″ SSDs ( 2 Mirrors, 1 Hot Swap Ready ) and a weekly cron job backup of NAS to external USB spinning HD.

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If you would like to email Black Mesa Labs directly without going through WordPress, solve the following anti-spam riddle: To Email Black Mesa Labs, email to user_name at the email provider “Comcast” of the internet domain “.net”. A useful user_name of “Black## Mesa## Labs” would probably work best. SPAMbots should leave all the #s and white space in place. This account will be canceled if it starts to receive SPAM.  Follow BML on Twitter for news on finished projects and projects in the pipe.

BML now has a GitHub account https://github.com/blackmesalabs for hosting open-source hardware and software projects.

This blog is about my creations and sharing things I have learned along the way in order to Deliver the Future – 2 layers at a time.

Welcome to Black Mesa Labs