Mikel Etxebarria from MK Electrónica: exclusive interview for LxA

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Mikel Etxebarria is an author of manuals on open hardware platforms like the book Aurdino: technology within everyone's reach, training courses on electronics, microcontrollers and Arduino, etc., in addition to the architect of MK Electronics, a site where you can find both training on this type of technology as well as kits and devices with which to practice and learn. And now at LxA we have had the opportunity to interview him exclusively for our blog ...

A luxury considering the importance of this type of open hardware devices for the development of a multitude of DIY projects, and even more so if we consider that platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi are serving as powerful educational tools. If you dare to know a little more about Mikel, the origins of his work and much more, I encourage you to read our interview:

LinuxAdictos: How was MK Electrónica born?

ME: Miguel Etxebarria: Although MK Electrónica (MKE) is very recently created (2018), we are actually the direct heirs of the veteran Programmed Microsystems Engineering (MSE). Due to the crisis that we have all suffered, MSE ceased its activity last year, in 2017. However, a spark remained, a small embers that allowed us to keep the flame burning and the illusion for technology.

And that's where we are. At MK Electrónica we have rescued MSE's most emblematic products, we manufacture, market and give them technical support. We also distribute products and accessories from our represented companies and, as it cannot be otherwise, we continue to design new products of our own. In fact, so far this year, we already have two new ones in our catalog: the Micro Lab platform and the ArduPIC controller card.

In short, we try to move on and be at the service of teachers, students, makers and fans in general.

LxW: Why didactic electronics?

ME: All of us who were part, before MSE, and now MK Electronics, have had a greater or lesser relationship with the world of education for decades. In those days we always had the feeling that the components and tools necessary to cover the practical aspect in the electronics / electrical specialty were complex, difficult to obtain and very expensive. Affordable only for centers, institutions or companies, but not for students or fans.

I am remembering the expensive laboratories for experimenting and practicing with electrical / electronic circuits, the development systems for programming and designing applications based on microprocessors / microcontrollers, the price of any component or integrated circuit that was a little out of the ordinary. normal (if you were lucky enough to find it clear), the exorbitant cost of the software tools and compilers necessary to write your programs, etc. Those like me who "comb gray hair" know what I'm talking about. I am talking about tens of thousands of the old pesetas.

At this time our vocation has always been to direct our equipment towards the student and hobbyist in general, trying to provide them with both hardware / software tools and components and accessories with the best possible quality / price ratio. Ultimately our intention is to socialize and promote the teaching of new technologies, or at least try.

LxW: Do you develop yourself any of the trainers that you offer in the store or is it an order that is made to third parties? Although you have already answered me before ... but explain a little to the readers:

ME: Yes. Although we certainly offer some articles developed by third parties, we can say that our "star" products are our own. This has been the case since the beginning of MSE, and at MK Electrónica we continue on this path. Our Universal Trainer electronics laboratory, the PIC's USB-PIC'School laboratory, and the Micro'LAB platform for Microcontroller cards, among others, are an example of this. They are equipment designed by us, manufactured by us and marketed by us. In other words, they are 100% ours teams.

LxW: We see support for free hardware like Arduino, but… Have you tried or currently using GNU / Linux or any free software?

ME: Although we come from the world of hardware and we are not software developers, we are users and aware of the importance of software. There is no point without each other.

In the environment in which I move hardware manufacturers finally! they have realized. If they want to sell their chips, their microprocessors, microcontrollers, memories, etc., in short, if they want to sell "silicon", they have to provide the software tools that allow and facilitate the use of these devices. In addition, they care very much that these software tools are cross-platform and can work on Windows, Linux, Mac, etc.

LxW: I point out the above, and I would like to add that a lot of effort and reverse engineering has also been made to make them work under free drivers in many cases, because the manufacturers have not wanted to open them. That said, what is your opinion of this type of open technology?

ME: What am I going to tell you!! After all my professional career, meeting with open technologies has been a blessing. I already tell you that I come from the hardware. To make, for example, an application based on microcontrollers, I need software tools such as a programming language and a working IDE environment that facilitates this design. Knowing that I have these open, multiplatform, reliable tools, provided by the manufacturer of the mike itself (finally!) And in different versions ... I'm glad I did.

Gone are the days when you had to pay for a simple assembly language, a compiler or a sad user manual that, on the other hand, was almost always incomplete. What I was telling you: a blessing ...

LxW: In fact, in the MK store you support this type of technology also from the hardware side with products such as Arduino boards. It is not like this?

ME: Yes of course. Arduino has managed to socialize and make technology attractive and affordable for everyone, whatever their economic situation and / or their level of preparation or knowledge. For example, I have clients who come from the world of Fine Arts. Well, these people consume Arduino or compatible boards. So that? I wondered. They explained to me that thanks to Arduino some of their designs or works can be enriched, improved and made more striking, original and exclusive, adding some technology to them. All this without getting into complex technical concepts and without making the final work more expensive.

From my point of view, the success of Arduino is due to three causes that other manufacturers did not know how to see in their day:

  • Its low cost makes it affordable for practically all budgets.
  • Its ease of use and programming, thanks to which we have a true army of users and developers who provide countless examples and libraries, and even different graphic programming languages. Of course all open and free.
  • At the hardware level, its open technology allows the creation and improvement of new controller cards, shields, accessories and accessories.

Although at MK Electrónica we are simple distributors of Arduino and compatible boards, we also have some developments based on them. How not to support these open technologies?

LxW: What is your main source of income: DIY? Education sector?

ME: What can I tell you ... I think in equal parts. Of course, it is clear that the Do It Yourself concept is increasingly on the rise thanks to open technologies in general and Arduino in particular. At MK Electrónica we supply tools, components and accessories to young and old, students, teachers, and amateurs in general. All of them are true "makers". I think that it is a very interesting sector but that you have to work on it more and better.

As for the education sector ... The first thing to say is that the crisis I was talking about at the beginning has also affected them through budget cuts. It is clear that this entails the lack of equipment in the classrooms, and / or the use of materials in poor condition, outdated or in disuse. They must equip themselves.

On the other hand, it must be said that many of the teaching professionals this technology has taken them by surprise. They are forced to train and learn about the different alternatives and tools available on the market. At MK Electrónica and from humility, that's what we are at.

LxW: Do you also supply the industrial sector? That is, if you use microcontrollers and other types of electronic devices for machinery and industry ...

ME: Yes. We have been in electronics for more than 35 years, so we can say that we know something about the world of electronic components. At MK Electrónica we cannot have stock with the infinity of existing components. However, we do collaborate with some good (or so it seems to me) distributors / importers and we can locate almost any device.

This being the case, some companies ask us for certain components, circuits, accessories, etc. We try to locate it and study and propose delivery times, minimum quantities, price, ...

LxW: 3D printing is also growing and booming. Do you plan to also cover this sector with the sale of printers or parts to build them (such as the Prusa and others built with Arduino)?

ME: Well, according to the latest news I have, it seems that the interest in 3D printing has stabilized, at least in the domestic sphere as most of us know. I don't know if it will be true or not. They are one of those news that passes in front of you without time to analyze them. What I am sure of is that the real boom is or will be in industrial 3D printing, something that escapes most of us mortals. Imagine being able to reproduce a part of a damaged machine that is in the antipodes.

In any case and answering your question, the truth is that we have arrived late to this sector. Nowadays even in large surfaces you can find a 3D printer and little else we can contribute.

LxW:… And the other big boom: drones? In fact, you already have training and material in store related to robotics, well, specifically about microrobotics and educational robotics.

ME: Well, on the topic of drones, I have to say something similar to what I was telling you about 3D printing. We have arrived late and it is a product that is perfectly represented in shops of all kinds.

As for microrobotics, indeed, I believe that we have been working with educational robotics almost since its inception. Consequently, MK ELectronics provides one type of Arduino based robot, and we supply accessories and sensors of different types and general purpose.

We also provide basic training on Arduino, Robotics, etc, ... through online courses that are taught at the Virtual Technology Campus, with which MK Electrónica collaborates regularly.

In line with this, if you allow me, I would like to present my point of view about what we at MK Electronics understand that an educational robot should be. It must be taken into account that from the point of view of training, a robot covers various aspects such as design (chassis), mechanics, electronics and programming. And I say this because these days almost any "thing" that moves is called a robot. In my opinion, a robot must meet certain requirements:

  1. Be expandable: so that its owner can remove or add sensors and actuators to adapt it to the environment in which it must operate.
  2. Programmable: its owner can program the tasks that the robot must perform at any given time. It is not worth a mobile device that when you put batteries in it, it moves forward and when it collides, it moves backward without much "intelligence" on its part.
  3. Autonomous: once the robot is programmed it must be able to function on its own in the environment that surrounds it, thanks to its sensors and actuators. The truth is that remote-controlled cars, airplanes and helicopters have been around for a long time, and they also need you to be attentive to them because if they don't crash ...
  4. In kit: if the robot is supplied in a kit so that its owner can assemble it better than better. That owner will be the one who knows him best and will be qualified to make all kinds of modifications and improvements on his machine. It is not worth going to a toy store and buying the first thing we see "ready to go." Where then are the "makers" and DIY?

LxW: Do you use the ROS (Robot Operating System) framework in any of those courses for robots?

ME: Well no. Maybe in the future ... At the moment our simple robot is based on the Arduino platform and what that entails.

For now we are content with providing tools and disseminating technology from its basic principles, making it "suitable for all ages." As I mentioned before, educational robotics is very appropriate to make that introduction something friendly and fun.

LxW: And changing the subject a bit, I would like to say that, as you know, I have been working and researching for 15 years on a project that you know and that I have been fortunate to be able to publish. I am fascinated by the world of microcontrollers and microprocessors, and you have been working with them for even more years, a little over 35 years if I remember correctly. He has also launched a course with The Security Sentinel for GNU / Linux Certification and I am aware of how important training in new technologies is for the present and the future. What would you say to readers who are hesitant to train in this field?

ME: Well look ... First of all, I would tell everyone that the important thing is to train, in the field that they like the most, but to train.

As you say, I have been in electronics for almost 40 years. I made my first electronic circuits and assemblies with… vacuum valves! Can you imagine the route that I have taken? From valves I went to semiconductors, transistors, from here to integrated circuits, then to microprocessors and finally to microcontrollers. I can boast (or not) having worked with endearing microphones such as the 8080, 8085, 8086, the R6502, the M6800, the Z80 and others that I have surely forgotten, and of which you speak in your work «Bitman's world«. By the way, a lot of work on your part.

Well, this being the summary of my journey, I have to say that technology, in addition to my way of life, has provided me with all kinds of satisfactions (also some disappointment) and has satisfied a large part of my curiosity. I say a large part because I know that I will never satisfy her 100%. The truth is that new technologies evolve a lot and quickly.

This is where those undecided have a place. The path of new technologies is long, very long, it never ends, but it is also exciting and to start walking you just have to take the first step. I did it with vacuum valves and now that first step can be taken with Arduino, robotics, open software platforms, GNU / Linux, etc. There are endless possibilities.

To all those who feel, even a little curious about technology, I invite you to take that first step. They will have time to abandon that long road if they wish. At MK Electrónica we have a motto: «Have fun and learn ...»

Thank you very much Mikel !!!

I hope you liked this interview.

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