Today's technology is a mixed-bag for home-based experimenters and hobbyists
The 2010 New York MakerFaire is coming soon, Sept. 25-26. While I won’t be able to attend (though I wish I could), it made me think about the state of the do-it-yourself (DIY) project culture, typified by these events and also the "steampunk" movement.
So, is the news good or bad? To me, it's both, depending on what you are doing:
Let's look at the "bad", first. Today's circuit boards are dense, with tiny passives, ICs with tight-pitch pins just a hair's-width apart (or under the IC package). While you can easily buy small quantities of parts via the web and some distributors (I won’t name names, you might think I am trying to "suck up" to some of our advertisers), doing the project is still a real challenge. Getting that PC board made, loading it, and soldering it is very difficult, and trying to probe or modify it—well, that's even harder. (Although I did very much like the article in Circuit Cellar a few years ago, that showed you how to use your home toaster oven—modified, of course, with a much better temperature-control system—to solder your loaded PC boards!).
Then there's the test equipment you'll need: while lots of good, inexpensive units are available (scopes, meters, and more), the performance requirements on these instruments have also increased significantly (speed, bandwidth, and accuracy), so it balances out, somewhat. Certainly, today's fast-clock, wide-bandwidth designs don’t lend themselves to through-hole ICs, but that doesn’t matter, since most ICs are not even offered in those packages.
But, there's good news, too: low-cost evaluation boards, many with USB ports and software-based tools, are available for many projects. Electromechanical parts such as motors, servos, sensors, and gear trains are everywhere, whether purchased new (oh, horrors!), or scavenged as cast-offs from discarded printers (much better!) and similar sources. Also, much of today's electronic and mechanical components operate from low voltages or batteries, which is much safer and easier to deal with from a design, safety, and enclosure perspective. Sources of information, data, suggestions, and ideas are easily accessible via the web; do-it-yourselfers no longer have to be alone, or they want to be that way.
So, what's my conclusion? If you are a "circuit-design" junkie, life can be very tough. But if your interest involves switches, motors, power control, mechatronics, and similar—whether alone or in conjunction with other circuitry—and the (optional) software to run it, there's a lot of opportunity and potential for creativity and fun.
But what do you think? What's your experience or perspective??