Coast Micro Systems


In those days, in those far-off days, in 1993 after finishing college, Ken Lord of Coast Micro Systems hired me to help develop plotter controls and sign lighting controls. Coast Micro was the manufacturing arm of a group of companies which are now known as Precix Router Systems, but then included Omnicad, Luminart, and Kinetic Precix.

Half of the business was manufacturing controllers for Gerber plotters, the same company responsible for the Gerber file format for fabricating circuit boards. These controllers plugged into card slots inside Gerber plotters and converted HPGL to Gerber plotter control codes so that anyone could “print” to a Gerber plotter using the generic HP plotter driver included with Windows. These plotters either had no computer interface at all or required very expensive proprietary software and proprietary fonts from Gerber, so Gerber didn’t like us very much. The market for this hardware was driven mainly by Scanvec who wanted to sell their software, but you could technically use any vector drawing program such as CorelDraw or Adobe Illustrator. Since this was more than twenty years ago, it isn’t easy to find any pictures of these products.

The other half of the business was OEM sign-cutting tables, which also used HPGL, but Coast Micro designed and manufactured the motion control hardware. The tables themselves were quite large and early on these were built by Luminart and Precix, but gradually these activities were consolidated.

Luminart’s tables were intended to dispense their proprietary UV sensitive luminite, while Precix tables were intended to cut foam in 3D shapes. This has an appearance of neon, yet doesn’t require a high voltage inverter or anything special, just a blacklight.

In addition, we also designed a controller for sign lighting to generate flashing sequences. These were capable of runway effects on colored neon tubes wrapping around complex interior designs of shopping malls and casinos, or so I was told. I just designed the electronics and wrote the firmware. It was capable of dimming neon, but really just caused it to flicker since you need a high frequency inverter to dim neon smoothly.

All of these products had 8051-based microcontrollers with firmware written in assembly language. I designed schematics and PCB layouts in OrCAD STD for DOS. I designed sheet metal enclosures using AutoSketch which surprisingly was a very usable Windows drafting program compared to AutoCAD.

There was a fish tank behind my desk in the office. Half the water had evaporated, but one fish still clung to life.

In those days, in those far-off days

–the title of Akkadian poem which provided a reference for The Epic of Gilgamesh

 

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