A venture in retrotronics

Last month version 5 of the KiCad software suite was released. It provides a set of OSS tools for designing electronic circuits and creating Printed Circuit Board (PCB) layouts, and is released under the GPLv3 licence.

Public institutions are a special kind of economic actor that can play a significant role in open-source development. KiCad is a testament to that.

The KiCAD project was started in 1992 by Jean-Pierre Charras, back then working at the Grenoble Institute of Technology. Five years ago, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) became a major contributor in the development of the software.

Open hardware and knowledge transfer

The primary reason for CERN to get involved in KiCad has to do with their open hardware licence and knowledge transfer strategy, says lead developer Wayne Stambaugh. They quickly recognized that they needed an open-source Electronic Design Automation (EDA) toolset to make their open hardware designs truly open for knowledge transfer.

From CERN's KiCad project page: We think that KiCad can do to PCB design what the GCC compiler did to software: ensure there are no artificial barriers to sharing so that design and development knowledge can flow more freely.

When people share their Free and Open-Source Software developments, they don't have to ask themselves if somebody will be able to open their files and edit them, says Javier Serrano, leader of CERN's Hardware and Timing section, and initiator of the Open Hardware Repository and the CERN Open Hardware Licence. Open Source Hardware (OSHW) is lagging way behind in that respect.


In the long term, CERN is expected to add KiCad to the EDA toolsets internally supported for PCB design (currently Altium and Cadence). CERN is a big and diverse place, says Serrano, and I can only speak for the BE-CO-HT section. We represent a small portion of the PCB designers inside CERN, but we do have the backing of our hierarchy in all our open hardware activities, of which KiCad is an important part. For example, our OSHW efforts were mentioned by the President of the CERN Council in his introductory message to the CERN annual report in 2011. And the CERN & Society Foundation helps us raise funds to pay for the further development of KiCad.

The typical workflow at CERN is to do the schematics first and then take them to the drawing office for layout. The people over there are doing layout eight hours a day, so they are very good guinea pigs for EDA tools. We recently did our first KiCad design with them for an official application at CERN. We want to iterate with them, working their feedback into the software, fixing issues, and trying KiCad on new designs, until they find they can be at least as productive with KiCad as they are with the proprietary tools.

According to Serrano, KiCad — in terms of features and quality — is becoming a very compelling option for boards of small and medium complexity, including for corporate users.

Paid developers

CERN's involvement has allowed the KiCad project to progress at an amazing rate, Stambaugh says. Prior to their involvement, KiCad was primarily written by three developers working in their free time. CERN provided two paid part-time developers who have contributed major pieces of KiCad code, such as the push and shove router and the integrated SPICE simulation. Moreover, the Foundation created the donations page, which allowed the existing and new developers to get paid to implement features such as improved board file formats and the Eagle project importer.

To speed up the development of version 6, the CERN & Society Foundation has launched a campaign to collect funding for 600 hours of expert development. Within a week all of the targeted CHF 30,000 (EUR 25,900) had been donated.

kicad eeschema

kicad 3dviewer

This article was originally written by Adrian Offerman for the Joinup/OSOR project of the European Commission.

You have no rights to post comments

Tindie badge