When beginning your journey into the field of electronics, it can be overwhelming to figure out what products might best compliment your learning experience. While FPGAs do allow you to complete complex projects with enormous room for future growth, I have found that microcontrollers (MCU) are often the perfect choice for beginning engineers (or aspiring engineers such as myself) when dipping one’s toes into coding. These little devices are fast enough for most makerspace projects and easy to use with their extensive community support. Many makers are also familiar with microcontrollers, often uploading their code to make project replications a simple step-by-step process.
Solving Makerspace Problems
During my short experience working with engineering hardware, I quickly found comfort when using microcontrollers. The chipKIT UC32 and WF32 provided helpful solutions to makerspace problems that I was looking to solve, such as adding movement to my projects and completing a project without much hassle. Without any prior coding experience I was able to learn a little about how to get a WF32 up and running using MPIDE (a development platform used by microcontrollers) simply by following online tutorials and asking knowledgeable community members (like James, who frequents the Digilent Forum). What was especially cool about using microcontrollers in the makerspace was that each device had enormous functionality with little cost to get projects up and running.
Experimenting with a device that is built with tinkerers in mind also helped me understand more about the maker community. I regularly browse Instructables to scope out the amazing projects people create (like this LED graduation cap), and working with microcontrollers was an easy way to participate within these communities. From a fashion perspective, the small hardware size also contributed to feasible design opportunities and helped me believe that fantastic art, like microcontroller wearables, was within reach (stay tuned world for future wearables designed by yours truly).
Choosing the Perfect Microcontroller
When choosing your perfect microcontroller it’s important to first figure out what you’re intending to create. Deciding between ideas like processing power and speed, amount of storage desired, and WiFi functionality can dramatically influence your project possibilities. Devices using the PIC32 MCU offer great design opportunities for makers pursuing IOT development projects. One of my favorite microcontrollers is the WF32 (currently on sale until January 15th!), which provides WiFi capabilities supported by a detailed Instructable for easy setup.
Another great choice for hardware is the PIC32MZ MCU with faster processing than the PIC32MX and added complexity. Using the PIC32MZ, such as found on the Wi-FIRE, would allow introductory makers the option of making projects with significantly faster operation speeds and greater memory storage. Makers desiring future growth opportunities might appreciate the Wi-FIRE for makerspace projects, however, any beginning maker can find good makerspace results with any PIC32 microcontroller choice.
No matter your electronics comfort level, I highly suggest giving microcontrollers a try in your makerspace. If you feel extra adventurous you can also try your hand at FPGAs or read this blog to learn more about the differences between microcontrollers and FPGA. Then let us know what you’ve tried (or intend to try) by commenting below!