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

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?

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