What is a Fritzing diagram, how does it differ to a schematic, and why is it making electronics so much easier?
It may sound like a clever dance move or something you’d remove from your shoe, but Fritzing is a mainstay of maker electronics.
In 2007, maker electronics started gaining momentum and became accessible to a much broader audience. This audience included absolute novice electronics enthusiasts to seasoned engineers wanting to leverage newer technologies. But something interesting happened, where software engineers could now, with relative ease, develop their own hardware projects. This brought their traditionally “cyberspace” skills into the hardware realm. A gap still needed to be overcome, however, because of their lack of electronics knowledge.
A freely available software programme, called Fritzing, looked to fill this gap by providing a no-knowledge (or at least low-knowledge) and low-barrier method of reading, documenting, and understanding electronic circuits. It meant that there was no longer a prerequisite for a thorough understanding of electronics to make a very useful device.
Fritzing has quickly become the standard for communicating electronics connections in the maker realm, providing a quick and clear indication of how a circuit goes together.
THE SPRING BOARD
It’s probably remiss of us not to mention that this visual learning procedure for electronics isn’t actually new. Many of our readers will have played with spring board style electronics circuits at one time or another through their electronics experience. During the 70s, 80s, and 90s, loads of “101 Electronics Projects” type boards were filled with dozens of fun components, which could be connected in various ways using spring terminals. The circuits created varied from tone generators to flashing LEDs, often to a basic radio receiver. They provided education and hours of fun for many budding enthusiasts, and laid the foundation for a future interest in electronics.
These solderless spring boards were also the fundamental ideas behind the famous Funway 1 series from Dick Smith Electronics, and also the Short Circuits 1 series, which is still available at Jaycar Electronics. There are also still many “101 Electronics Projects” type kits available from retailers which provide fantastic fundamental knowledge and experimentation. They’re also safe (no soldering required), and the components are virtually indestructible since the whole thing is very low-power. They can also be built over and over again, providing valuable repeat use for students and educational institutions.
Indeed it’s somewhat ironic that an actual spring board could well have been the metaphoric spring board for what is now a digital Fritzing diagram.
SCHEMATIC VS FRITZING
The humble schematic (pronounced “skee-mattic”) has been part of electronics for as long as there has been electronics. Engineers, circuit designers, and many hobbyists over decades have relied on schematics as virtually the only method of communicating their circuits.
We certainly can’t dispute the schematic as the A-grade method for documenting and communicating circuits, but there’s one major hurdle; knowledge.
Learning the symbology associated with schematics takes time, but a basic grasp can be achieved within a few hours. However, just as you may know how to order a beer in 7 languages, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily proficient in those languages either. The same goes for schematics. Crossing the boundary between a basic grasp and being able to convert any schematic into a working prototype, generally takes further knowledge and practice. The more complex the circuit, the better the understanding generally needs to be in order to build the circuit successfully.
It’s also arguably far more difficult to draw a complete and accurate schematic from a working circuit, once there’s more than a handful of components. For those of us with the knowledge and experience, it’s generally not too difficult, sure. But in the context of someone new to electronics, it can be more like translating the newspaper into a foreign language, using a bilingual dictionary.
THE MAKER REVOLUTION
With the increasing use of microcontrollers in hobby electronics, the number of connections required to make a useful electronic circuit has dropped significantly.
With an entirely analogue or discrete-type circuit (resistors, transistors and LEDs for instance), you would need many components and even more connections to make a circuit that is now readily replaced with a microcontroller and some code. That combination can often drop the number of connections required electrically to just a handful. In some instances, there are no electrical connections required at all outside of plugging a shield into an Arduino and applying power, for instance.
In these instances, it’s often not practical or useful to use a traditional schematic, because maker electronics is far more modular. We can ignore many of the internal connections required, and focus on the interconnection of parts.
It’s worth noting that integrated circuits and large modules can be simplified in a schematic, often by using a rectangle and noting pin numbers. So schematics do indeed have a method for handling prototyping boards and such, without illustrating the inner details, which are often irrelevant to the implementation.
A PICTURE TELLS 1,000 WORDS
We all know the old saying “a picture tells a thousand words”. When we see something visually, we can often understand what’s going on, even without shared language.
Indeed, for many circuits, an absolute beginner to electronics can look at a fritzing diagram, and depending on its complexity, probably follow it, and often achieve success. However, they wouldn’t have the same success during their first encounter with a schematic.
COMPONENTS OF A FRITZING
There is literally no limit to the components of a Fritzing diagram. Since the illustrations of the hardware tell the story, as soon as there’s new hardware, that new piece of hardware gets its own illustration.
The illustration of wires and connections between components can take on all sorts of forms. However, the net effect is the same, in that it conveys “connect these two points together”. Whether you use a jumper wire, link wire, or a piece of copper tubing (albeit impractical), it’s entirely up to you and it often has no effect on the end result.
That being said, the lack of regulation and consistency can mean that each person’s Fritzing will have a slightly different flavour than someone else’s. However, many engineers will agree, that personal influence affects schematic layouts, and most people have a distinct way of coding too.
It’s something of a signature, just not from the stroke of a pen. Indeed, we have developed our own styles here at DIYODE for our Fritzing diagrams to assist with clarity and consistency. Though it’s reasonable to expect these will change over time, and indeed have since our first issue was published.
THE BENEFITS OF FRITZING
In addition to the positive points noted already, there are a few other key benefits of fritzing diagrams.
If you’re new to electronics with limited knowledge, a Fritzing diagram can provide a visual reference to allow methodical debugging of a prototype and its circuit. That is, to work out visually why your circuit may not be working.
As you can see from the image on the previous page of a prototype circuit against its Fritzing diagram, it’s fairly easy to see how any major wiring errors can often be found due to major differences.
While arguably it would be difficult to make the same error when building from a schematic, it’s certainly not impossible to make errors in this way. However, the debugging process can potentially be more arduous without a literal reference. For an engineer or proficient hobbyist, it’s probably not a major issue. However, a novice may ultimately be unable to debug the circuit - especially if it’s a single minor error which causes total failure of the circuit.
LOW KNOWLEDGE BARRIER
As we’ve mentioned briefly, you can basically look at a Fritzing and see where everything connects. Many circuits using a microcontroller can be powered from the microcontroller itself, further reducing the markup required to show power supplies, USB connections, and a host of other things. While these can be omitted from a schematic when it’s part of a larger board, it’s not always clear, and certainly not as clear as a picture.
Using the free Fritzing software, you can quickly and easily create accurate representations of your own circuits retrospectively. With a little care, clicks of a mouse, and a little checking, you’ll easily be able to create a diagram that you can share with the world. Another maker can quickly pick this up and build the same circuit you did, without much fuss at all.
Similarly, it enables you to document your own prototyping and builds, for reconstruction, later on, so you can reuse the components for another project in the meantime.
THE DEFICIENCIES OF FRITZING
We can’t sensibly say that a Fritzing diagram is the epitome of circuit notation. There are certainly some deficiencies in the information they convey, and they’re not for everyone.
It’s easy to see a relatively simple circuit turn into what appears as an extremely complicated mess of a Fritzing. Once you have a microcontroller with a few modules, perhaps a breadboard or two and some discrete components (resistors or LEDs for instance) the visual complexity can increase substantially.
Arguably, it’s still easy enough to trace each wire from one point to another, and make your way through it. because maker electronics is far more modular. We can ignore many of the internal connections required, and focus on the interconnection of parts.
Once you have a complex circuit, there will always be some level of complexity in documenting the connections - there’s really just no way around it.
When connecting to microcontrollers, integrated circuits, and other complex pin arrangements, it can become difficult to follow precisely what goes where amongst the veritable snake-pit of connections.
For any given piece of hardware, it can come in different shapes and sizes from the manufacturer. Integrated circuits can come in various different packages, and even the same maker module may feature a different pinout from one to the next.
There is a reasonable percentage of the population who have one form or another of colour blindness. This can add a challenge for these people, with reduced visibility and distinction between various colours (and therefore paths between components) compared to a schematic, which is typically all in black or at least a single colour.
Colour has long been a challenge with electronics, since resistors all use coloured bands for value labelling. Since a Fritzing shows these resistors (and all components) without values showing, if it’s difficult to make out the colours of the resistors, they can be easily mixed up. A schematic writes all values in plain text, so this isn’t an issue with a schematic.
Below shows numbers in challenging ways using colour. If you cannot identify the numbers within the circles, you may be colour-blind to some colour combinations (however this is not designed as a test, merely to point out the challenges associated with colour).
WHICH IS BETTER?
It really depends on what you’re doing, and perhaps a personal preference. In reality, there is no winner - they’re just different. Just like Ford versus Holden, chocolate versus strawberry, and Coca-Cola versus Pepsi. There are things about each that a particular person may prefer , or indeed will be better suited to a particular project than another.
You may have noticed that on many DIYODE projects, we actually provide both. With rare exception, we publish a full schematic and fritzing of each project, so you can use your preference, or both, as a clear reference.
There are some occasions where we won’t include a schematic, such as Kid’s Basics projects. These projects have limited connections and don’t really benefit from a schematic. The intended audience is also the novice builder, where a schematic is not going to assist with construction at that stage, so we omit the schematic.
On the flip side, some of our more complex PCB builds do not feature a Fritzing diagram. We may demonstrate a fundamental component of the circuit with a Fritzing and prototype, however, the final build would require a Fritzing that is too complex, or breadboarding may be unreliable for the circuit. In these instances, we don’t see the value in a Fritzing diagram and won’t include one.
However, we do try and include both whenever practical to cater to our broad audience, whichever way you like to roll!
HOW TO BUILD FROM A FRITZING DIAGRAM
While the initial title for this instalment was “How To Read A Fritzing”, we quickly realised there’s not really an entire article in that. You literally follow the picture step by step until your build looks the same. Right?
Sure. While it’s fairly straightforward, there are a few steps to follow to help ensure success. We’ll build this circuit in stages, as we’d recommend it. There’s no real right or wrong way, but we tend to use this procedure to help reduce components and parts falling out once they’re in. Not everything will hold its place with the same force, so they can be easily knocked back out again.
Making your power connections is vital to ensure no ill effects come to your hardware. While some modules are reverse-polarity protected, and many of our maker circuits are current limited (meaning sparks aren’t going to fly), you can still do damage with an incorrect connection.
Of course, leave your actual power supply (or your microcontroller if it’s powering the circuit) off during construction. It’s very easy to short something out. You might get lucky and get away with it, but you might just destroy a vital piece of hardware. Even worse, you may not even know you’ve done it - and spend many hair-pulling hours trying to work out the problem later.
So make all power connections between the power source and modules, or power source and breadboard first, to help ensure they’re not miss-wired.
For any small-distance connections that are shown, it’s best to use breadboard link wires. These are short wires that are a little tricky to install and remove from a breadboard, but once they’re in, are neat and tidy out of the way. They’re less likely to be dislodged once they’re installed too, so you can usually rely on them staying put.
Install any integrated circuits (ICs), terminal blocks, or other flush-mounted components that aren’t too bulky. They’ll hold firm, and you can get the positioning right without too much else in the way. It’s also easier when wrangling multi-pin components without much else in the way just yet.
Legged components such as resistors and capacitors can stand tall on a breadboard, unless you trim their legs. They tend to hold firm in the breadboard, but can be a little bulky (especially electrolytic capacitors), so can easily be bumped or get in the way if inserted too early. LEDs have the same issue, so they are usually inserted around this step too.
Now you can complete the wiring with jumper wires. This is usually for sensors, modules or other connections for data to and from a microcontroller. The jumper wires are extremely useful and easy to use, but quickly get in the way when you have more than a few.
Last but not least, any bulky items which really get in the way of the breadboard. In this instance, we have a DHT11 sensor module which can otherwise get in the way. Any major terminals, modules you’re plugging straight into the breadboard, or anything else you haven’t installed yet. You may find it easier to install bulky items prior to jumper wires, but they can quickly get in the way, so this is a personal preference and doesn't really matter overall.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Go to fritzing.org and download a copy of Fritzing. It’s free for non-commercial use. Have a play, experiment, and share!