Untoolkit electronics


Why rebuilding an existing toolkit?

That looks like an Arduino Lilypad! Yes, it does because it is. Why would I rebuild and modify an existing toolkit? Because I needed a project to figure out our PCB milling machine, so as an exercise I set out to make our homemade version of the wearables Lilypad toolchain developed by Leah Buechley, who made all the design files open and available. I had to replace all the footprint with the ones matching the components in our inventory and went on to produce the electronics from scratch. Today I was finally able to hook it all up and program the chip with an IC test clip and a USBtinyISP AVR programmer. This could be a nice cheap way for fashion students to play around with such a toolchain, that is easy and well-documented, but potentially gives them an entry into the world of ‘real’ untoolkitted electronics. This is important because working with black boxes never allows you to get intimate knowledge of the material you are working with. And it will not allow you to hack the material to your needs and liking. I’ve made four versions with different functionality which can all be manufactured and programmed in less than a couple of hours.

Are you afraid of electronics? Making custom PCBs

My longer term goal is to work towards building confidence in students and teachers, so they’ll start adjusting board to their needs by designing their boards or modding them by replacing or adding components to the existing layouts. I’ve always found it easier to modify existing files and the sewing pad library that is available freely is quite useful for designing electronics for textiles. I think that it’s a valuable learning experience and professional development for design students to rely a bit less on toolkits step by step and start building confidence to embark on the real electronics learning curve.

There’s some politics there, because the argument to “untoolkit” electronics is one that serves democratic, open access to knowledge and techniques (see Mellis et.al. 2013). Working with small chips such as the ATMEL ATtiny’s, and off the shelf SMD components can be considered the hardware sister of open source software. Using as little proprietary means as possible in the electronics toolchain makes its production truly democratic and open. Chips and simple components are widely available and cheap(er) than one-size-fits-most toolkits. Most beginning and intermediate users don’t need nearly all the functionality that is put into toolkit boxes such as Arduino boards etcetera. After the initially steep learning curve, creators can eventually have more control, less unused functionality (smaller boards!), and in the long run it becomes cheaper and more scalable (electronics designs can be sent to manufacturers for production in bulk). Moreover, designs will become replicable across the globe because chips and components are standardised and widely available in almost every country.

Tools: Eagle, PCB milling machine (LPKF protomat here), Soldering tools, Arduino IDE with Attiny libraries installed, Crosspack AVR


Mellis, D. A., Jacoby, S., Buechley, L., Perner-Wilson, H., & Qi, J. (2013, February). Microcontrollers as material: crafting circuits with paper, conductive ink, electronic components, and an untoolkit. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction (pp. 83-90). ACM.