Framing It: 11.26.2019

Vias on pads! A DeLorean Ute! The new MacBook doesn’t suck? You need to write drivers! Oh, and some job listings!

Brian Benchoff
Nov 26, 2019 · 4 min read

By far the most interesting thing in the world of tech last week was the introduction of the Tesla Cybertruck. The next big thing in electric vehicles is an electric pickup truck — seeing as how the F150 is the best-selling car on the road — and manufacturers have been lining up to offer their wares. Why is this important?

  • Rivian signed a deal with Amazon to produce 100,000 electric trucks, ostensibly for delivery.
  • Rivian also bought GM’s Lordstown plant to produce these trucks, because the Chevy Cruize isn’t paying the bills.
  • But the Cybertruck looks like someone made a DeLorean Ute, and is, therefore, a bazillion times cooler. Get your $100 deposit in now.

Nate at Sparkfun has been working on a new project. As you would expect with modern IC packages, the pins are smaller, and this one is right at the limit of what can be easily manufactured. The problem? Massive ball grid arrays, just barely large enough to fit a trace through. The solution? Oh, this is going to be good.

  • The chip involved is an 81-ball BGA with 0.5mm pitch. It’s unmanufacturable with standard 6-mil trace and space.
  • The solution was to put a via on pad. Basically, the pad for the ball of the chip is also a via. Yes, a board house can do this easily.
  • With this, it’s easy to break out all the traces to other layers, though this comes at a cost. Sparkfun had to o with blind and buried vias for this board.
  • The summary is that anyone can build a PCB. That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting everything to fit together, and with this you need to look at new and interesting manufacturing techniques. No, they’re not cheap.

  • @mcclure111 writes about working at Sun Microsystems in 2004 and how Sun designed a product to make a comeback.
  • Sun thought that “in the future” that everyone would use a computer running in the cloud even though the cloud hadn’t been invented yet.
  • They built the Sunray, a system that was magical and FAST but the drawback was that you had to use Solaris, a Unix-based Enterprise OS.
  • There wasn’t a user story, and the Sunray failed. @mcclure111’s twitter thread is a fantastic read about products designed for what can we build rather than what do people want.

Butterfly-less keys. Image: iFixit

If there’s one thing that has kept people from upgrading their 6-year-old MacBook Pro, it’s the keyboard. It’s also the the lack of an escape key, and the donglepocalypse. There’s a lot of reasons, really.

  • Apple just released the new 16" MacBook Pro, and the biggest news is a revision to something similar to the 2015-era keyboard.
  • iFixit has a teardown for the new 16" MacBook, confirming that this is not the ‘Magic Keyboard’ of recent years.
  • This is a new, butterfly-less keyboard, and it’s a return to form. Apparently Apple listens to user feedback.

Filip has been working on a biometric password manager, essentially a Yubikey (or something like it) with a fingerprint sensor. Fingerprint sensors are in a lot of products these days, so you would think sourcing and integrating this into a product would be easy, right? Nope. Big fat nope.

  • The first problem was sourcing a fingerprint module. This is far more difficult than it should be, and there are no small fingerprint sensors on Mouser or Digikey. The solution was simply trolling Google Images and Alibaba for something that looks like it would work.
  • The next problem was getting a datasheet. This was in Chinese, and somehow stuck in a Dropbox folder. Also the datasheet was on fire, and could only be obtained if you have a fax machine. In short, if you’re not using a readily-available component, you’re not going to get a readily-available datasheet.
  • Getting that fingerprint sensor to work? Here’s where things get fun. There was no driver, and for some reason the firmware for this device is being written in Rust. That means Filip had to write his own driver, and this wasn’t easy.

The takeaway from this entire experience is that building electronics is hard work, and there’s a lot of work that goes into it before you write your first line of code. That’s what you get when you’re on the bleeding edge.

List with us:

Mira is an LA-based Augmented Reality startup looking for a Lead Embedded Systems hire + other positions. Contact Kyler: kyler.frisbee (at) miralabs (dot) io

Crowd Supply is a Portland-based hardware product launch platform looking for a Project Manager + other positions. Contact jobs (at) crowdsupply (dot) com and mention that you saw it here.

Intel’s Silicon Photonics Product Division is seeking a Senior Staff Development Engineer to lead the exploration and development of future fiber assembly technologies.


Discussing the business of hardware and hardware manufacturing.

Brian Benchoff

Written by


Discussing the business of hardware and hardware manufacturing.

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