FlexiPower: the interview

Following the enthusiasm of my previous post, I wish to share an interview a good friend of mine gave to me the latest days of August for his own blog.

The original interview run in Italian, but here I’m posting an English translation: thank you Francesco for pushing me into learning Arduino! 🙂


Zeirus: Hi Roberto. Can you explain with few words what FlexiPower is and which use, us mortals, can do of it?

Roberto: Hi Francesco, I’ll be very glad to do so! FlexiPower is a tool thought for electronic enthusiasts, being newbies or advanced. It is a portable power supply providing two independent channels, both voltage and current controlled. It might seem a niche instrument, but it’s not: anybody playing with an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi, but also those very beyond that phase, know it is an important tool. Usually they are bench instruments, heavyweight, powered by mains e quite expensive, in the order of thousands euro. Normally a newbie would look for cheap Chinese clones, but those have important culprits and might be extremely dangerous.
I wanted to keep costs down in my project, but I didn’t want to sacrifice anything in terms of quality, so I went for an headless instrument, without a screen or any physical user interface, but a remote control via a smartphone and a WiFi connection, with the advantage FlexiPower can be remotely controlled from the other side of the world! Going for a smartphone also allowed me to introduce a feature only the most expensive versions of these tools provide: continous and prolonged logging of current output, and the ability to plot a diagram.

FlexiPower_00

Zeirus: Did you base FlexiPower on some already existing project? If so, what have you specifically added/tweaked to make it “better” than the original?

Roberto: Obviously I hardly copied from another project made by somebody much more experienced and knowledgeable on electronics than I am: Dave Jones, author of a popular electronics channel on YouTube, did publish multiple videos describing, step by step, his own project uSupply. From an end user perspective FlexiPower adds a second channel a completely drops the physical UI, originally consisting of two rotary encoders and an LCD screen. In reality I had to face multiple little and less little problems, many of which I wasn’t aware of until I broke my nose on them.

La schermata di settaggio con presets La schermata del canale #2

Zeirus: How many hours/days have you spent so far developing FlexiPower?

Roberto: To be honest I’m not sure I can quantify it. If you consider I first had to learn how to create such type of instruments… actually I’m not sure I’ve understood all the secrets. After  had to learn the details of the starting project, study each of its components and understand their characteristics. From that point I started to believe it would have been easy, after a few months I undestood how much I was wrong. I don’t think it’s a lie to say I did spend no less than 10 hours a week for the past 18 months working on FlexiPower. Clearly most of the time was during the weekend and holidays, for the greatest joy of my partner!

Zeirus: I can only imagine her Posso solo immaginare la gioia immeasurable joy!🙂
Do you believe your senior experience on the Java programming language has anyhow helped you? 

Roberto: No, I don’t think so, to say the truth. Micro controllers are commonly programmed in C and even the smartphone user interface has been developed as an hybrid application, so based on JavaScript…. I would say Java has little to do with the whole project, but my software developer background has definitely guided me toward the remote interface and, maybe toward a new perspective on those type of tools, with characteristics reserved to more expensive ones.

Zeirus: Which open-source softwares did you use to develop your project? Do you believe they are up to the task or is there still something missing?

Roberto: That’s truly an interesting question because I did try many EDA softwares (CAD dedicated to electronics) for this project, but many were under my expectations: rough, impractical or extremely limited. Then something turned around my opinion: almost a year ago, during the Rome Maker Faire, I met somebody from the company producing the market leader software, Altium. Clearly their top of the line product , you can easily imagine that, is priced comparable to a car, but they had recently released a free version of their software called CircuitMaker. The only real limitation is you have to share your creations.
As a truly convinced supporter of open source I couldn’t avoid a try and I was really impressed by the tool quality: no surprise they are the market leaders. Up to now I believe it’s the best free tool for creating electronic projects, way above the old classic tools like Eagle CAD!

CircuitMaker_Editor_Ubuntu_Wine

Zeirus: That’s great! It’s a pity CircuitMaker is not – yet – available on non Windows platforms (even if you can actually make it work in Ubuntu via Wine). Anyway, do you believe electronics nowadays is simpler than in the past? Let’s say twenty years ago? If yes, what do you envision for the new twenty years? 

Roberto: Absolutely! Arduino has turned the micro controllers and digital electronics into toy, accessible to practically anybody. Just follow an online tutorial and you’ll learn how to burn a few components and get addicted. I still remember when my older brother was learning PIC micro controllers, spending hours to program them to blink an LED using an UV lamp to erase the chip!

Now you can get the  same results with 5 lines of code, an USB connector and you don’t even have to know the principles of electronics. Sure, after burning to death a few LEDs you might start to learn you need a series resistor, but isn’t a pleasure to see those bright little bastards die into smoke?

Zeirus: With the exclusion of the merciless genocide perpetrated against “those bright little bastards”, would you know consider yourself a true maker, or do you still miss “something” to be one?

Roberto: Everybody decides to build something starting from little or nothing can consider himself a maker, in my opinion. I believe I became a maker when i built my first LED cube, a miniscule 3 x 3 x 3 still sitting on my office desk which I’m really proud of!

perfboard

Zeirus: What is the tool you still miss in your maker “lab”?

Roberto: I don’t know where to start. To be honest my lab is contained inside 3 drawers of my home desk, including all the electrical components collected so far, the numerous boards and a certain amount of prototypes.

I don’t have much space in my house as I don’t own a garage or a room dedicated to myself only, so anything I use must hidden to sight when not in use (Zeirus’ note: that means hidden to his partner’ eyes! 🙂) . I own a little oscilloscope, with ridiculous characteristics, but adequate to my current needs. A multimeter, pen style soldering iron, a set of tweezers and screwdrivers, a caliper and little more. A tool I am aiming for is a CNC milling machine to quickly realize PCBs for my prototypes…

Zeirus: I know FlexiPower is going to participate as best project of the year on Circuit Maker and the competition will close in a few days! Are you near project completion? What is still missing?

Roberto: In reality it’s Project Of The Summer 2016, a competition closing by the end of August for which I spent a lot of time to refine FlexiPower. The project is at a really good stage, I just sent out an order for the second round of PCBs (10) as the first ones were unusable: I have made some mistakes, it was my very first time… I already have the components to build 4 prototypes of the FlexiPower, even if I believe a couple of tries to realize the next round of improvements.
The software is only in a very alfa status at this stage, but that’s not my top concern as that is my daily bread. I’m more concerned about the PCBs, I hope I didn’t made any other silly mistake this round: I obviously underestimated the complexity in such task and I wasted a lot of time in trial and errors… but I believe I’m there now!

Zeirus: Well, as we say: practice beats theory!😉 … The final question! Be honest: do you believe your project is a first place one?🙂

Roberto: Sincerely I can’t evaluate that, but I threw in all my enthusiasm and energy so that others, more knowledgeable and experienced then me, might consider it worth for the competition.

I would be really praised to receive a recognition for my project, but that’s not the reason why FlexiPower exists. I hope it will become the most forked project, possibly with great contributions from the CircuitMaker community… and it’s in a good shape so far!

Zeirus: Wonderful! Than there’s nothing left other than wishing you the best for the final result!

Roberto: Thanks a million buddy!

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