Electronic Load Basics on Workbench Wednesdays

element14 Presents on YouTube
2019-09-18

During the Bench Power Supply basics video, I made use of my electronic load. An electronic load can sink current from power sources such as power supplies or batteries. Loads are useful to test a power supply’s design margin or verify a battery’s capacity. See how three different instrument options from ultra low-end to midrange to high-end compare. After this element14 Presents Workbench Wednesday video, you will understand how to use modes on an electronic load like constant current and constant resistance to make different measurements.

In the video, I compare three different types of tools: a $50 battery tester from eBay, BK Precision 8540 Electronic Load, and a high-end Rohde & Schwarz NGM202. They are all capable of acting as a constant current sink. In other words, you program the current and let the supply under test run. In the case of batteries, this mode is useful to test battery life. The 8540 and NGM202 both feature other capabilities like constant resistance which, as you can imagine, acts as an electronic resistor. The cool thing about using an electronic load as a power resistor is that some of them are capable of sinking up to 10s of amps.

After submitting the video to the producers, I realized I focused very heavily on batteries. More often, you use an electronic load to test power supply boards or modules. I wish I had shown those more, but it didn’t seem like it was missing until the end. So maybe in the future I can convert tools for measuring DC/DC power supplies? However, I did cover one topic significant to me. I show just how bad 9V batteries are, a topic which I like to come back to often. So I made sure to show off just how bad they work when driven past 100 mA. (It is terrible!)

Learn more at element14

Bench Power Supply Basics | Workbench Wednesdays

element14 Presents on YouTube
2019-08-28

A bench power supply makes powering circuits easy and safe. Learn how to adjust basic controls like voltage. Finally, see how “current limiting” works (and why you should use it.) See how you can use built-in series or parallel tracking to increase a bench power supply’s voltage or current output. Last, if you are in the market for a power supply, do not forget to add some leads like mini-grabbers, alligator clips, and banana plugs.

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Semiconductor Measurements | Workbench Wednesdays Review

element14 Presents on YouTube
2018-08-07

When it comes to transistors, there are only so many things a multimeter can measure. The DCA Pro from PEAK Electronics makes short work of testing parts like a transistor. This small device can determine pinout, component type, and essential parameters in a matter of seconds. Not only that, but it can be connected to a (Windows) PC and draw parameter curves. Check out the video review to see how the device and software works. Then head over to the element14 page where you can download a zip file full of example parts I measured for you. The free to download software can open them.

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7+ Python Engineering Modules for Electronics Engineers

Python is everywhere. Its capabilities continue to grow. Not only can you create simple scripts, but you can create full-blown applications with it. The core has been scaled down to run on 32-bit microcontrollers like the ESP32 and Adafruit Feather M0. You can even use Python engineer modules to design stuff like circuits. There are electronics Python modules that create schematics, simulate circuits, and make solving math a cinch. Here are some of the modules I found that make Python usable for (electronics) engineering.

Up front, make sure you have a functioning Python environment. Update the package manager “pip” since all of these electronics python modules rely on it. Speaking of dependences, you may need to also install third-party libraries for some of them. From what I can tell, these all should be platform independent. However, I only tested these electronic modules with 64-bit Windows.

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Measuring ESR with the PEAK ESR70 | Workbench Wednesdays Review

element14 Presents on YouTube
2019-06-25

There are three capacitor measurements you need to know how to make: capacitance, leakage current, and equivalent series resistance. Capacitance is easy to measure if you have a current limited supply or can use a resistor. Apply a voltage, then time how long it takes to charge-up. You might need to use an oscilloscope or even an Arduino for the second part.  Leakage current is the easiest of the three, apply a voltage (ideally through a resistor) for a few minutes, and then measure the current. ESR requires some special tricks. Since it is the resistance of the “wires” connecting to the capacitive element’s anode and code, you have to measure resistance without charging up the capacitor. (Otherwise, you get leakage.)

In the post Measuring Aluminum Electrolytic Capacitor’s ESR, I go through those methods in more detail. I also introduce the PEAK Electronics ESR70. It’s a pocket-sized instrument that measures both Capacitance and ESR. There’s a button you can touch, or it detects when a new capacitor is connected. Check out my Workbench Wednesdays review where I go into depth about how the meter works (and whether or not I like it.) Oh one bonus feature, it works while in-circuit!

As of this post, it has been almost six years since I first wrote about capacitors on my blog. The article was the Arduino GSM Shield’s capacitor has a serious design flaw. Wow, how time passes.

More info on element14

Raspberry Pi 4 Armchair Datasheet Evaluation

Are the performance improvements possible?

With the introduction of the Raspberry Pi 4, I dug into the announcement and datasheet while waiting for mine to arrive. Well, “datasheet” might be an exaggeration, but there is a list of the Raspberry Pi 4 tech specs available. That link gives a bullet item list of the main specs. In this post, I focus on these four:

  • Broadcom BCM2711, Quad core Cortex-A72 (ARM v8) 64-bit SoC @ 1.5GHz
  • Up to 4GB LPDDR4-2400 SDRAM (depending on model)
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 2 USB 3.0 ports; 2 USB 2.0 ports.

There is a lot of very cool stuff on this $35 board. (Amazing they have kept that price point!) Or even the 4 GB $55 board. Adding Bluetooth 5, H.265 AND H.264 decoding, USB-C connector (Power), and changing the SoC to a 28 nm process are all significant improvements.

But, being an engineer and a person on the Internet, I am required to nitpick, and armchair engineer this (now) released product (that I haven’t touched yet.) Without doubt there will be a number of benchmarks posted along with the release of the Pi 4. And I expect many of those only benchmark individual components. For example, I already saw graphs on the Gigabit Ethernet speed and USB 3.0 throughput, but not at the same time. As you will see in my datasheet evaluation, using two USB devices at the same time has a performance penalty.

First, what is new with the SoC?

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Introducing Bit Preserve

Recreating vintage schematics with KiCad

Bit Preserve Banner

A project I work on in my spare time is creating a portable Apple II. Like many of my projects, one leads into another. I started out wanting to make a mobile Apple II, and now I’m working on a project called Bit Preserve. How did I get from one project to the next? Well, as I looked into how to make a portable Apple II, I realized a significant issue. The original Apple II logic board has almost 80 ICs. Being a design from 1975, they are all through-hole packages. The good news is that except for the ROM chips, they are all off-the-shelf components. But such a size means it might be impossible to turn it into something handheld. I almost abandoned the project. Then, I learned about a chip included in the Apple IIgs. The name of the ASIC is “MEGA II.” (Nothing to do with Arduino.) It is a chip that integrates all of those off-the-shelf chips into an 84 pin package.

As I dove deeper into the project, I realized I needed other support chips to make the MEGA II useful. There is a decent book that discusses the technical details of the Apple IIgs, but it does not get into chip or board level design. For that detail, I had to look at the original schematics. While I am ecstatic that someone archived these original documents as PDFs, I quickly became frustrated. Sometimes the scan quality is not very good, and it is nearly impossible to search for symbols across multiple pages. I thought to myself, “There has got to be a better way!”

Bit Preserve on GitHub

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Bald Engineer’s ESD Must-Haves | Workbench Wednesdays

element14 Presents on YouTube
2019-06-04

Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) damage can occur without you knowing it. That’s bad. However, the good news is that with little effort you can prevent it. Duratool has a kit of the most common ESD tools for any electronics workbench. It includes a large mat, grounding cable, wrist strap, ESD-safe cleaner, and a simple electronic tester. Don’t get shocked by ESD; add these simple tools to prevent it.

This review is on a kit that includes:

  • Large ESD Mat
  • Ground Cable
  • Wrist Strap
  • Wrist Strap Tester
  • ESD Mat Cleaner

Even if you aren’t interested in ESD, you might want to watch the first 30 seconds. 🙂

More info on element14

New Arduino Nano board from Maker Faire 2019

Is the new Arduino Nano Every, IoT, BLE, and BLE Sense worth it?

New Arduino Nano Every at Maker Faire 2019

I had the chance to spend some time with the Arduino team before and during Maker Faire Bay Area 2019. I also attended Massimo’s “State of Arduino” talk. In short, there are new Arduino Nano boards coming, a certification available today, updates on the Vidor, interesting education kits, and one more special announcement.

It rained most of the weekend, which I am sure caused attendance to take a hit. Normally this would not be a big deal, but there was some talk it may be the last year for the Bay Area’s show. As usual, I walked the show on Friday and did take note there were several new exhibitors throughout. For that reason, I hope it is not the last one.

Depsite the grim news, spirits from attendees were high. On Saturday I helped answer questions and give out t-shirts at the Arduino booth. The time flew by fast but not before I got to overhear and explain tidbits about this year’s Arduino announcements.

New Arduino Nano (Every, IoT, BLE, and BLE Sense)

My favorite announcement, hands down, is the new Arduino Nano boards. The boards are a new small form factor featuring castellated edges. A “castellated edge” means you can solder the entire module to a PCB. It is a cost-effective way for adding a complex microcontroller solution to small and medium run products. You might be familiar with the concept from the ESP, WiFi, or Bluetooth modules.

The board form factor is really the only thing these new Arduino Nano boards have in common. Each offers a slightly different feature set. Oh, and the price for each is shocking for an Arduino branded board.

New Arduino Nano Every

New Arduino Nano Every

Arduino Nano Every

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6 things I learned about KiCad at KiCon 2019

Re-cap of the stuff I found interesting at the first conference for hardware developers

KiCon 2019 Review

In April 2019, hardware hackers, hobbyist, and engineers joined together for the first KiCon. A couple of people asked me, “why is there a conference for KiCad?” Some questioned if KiCad was significant enough software to warrant a conference. That question is valid. But KiCon is larger than the KiCad software. Even in its first iteration, KiCon evolved more into a meeting for people building electronics hardware from small scale hobbyist to professionally designed systems, than just a conference on a single piece of software. Some might call it a maker conference. I call it a hardware developer conference. The key that tied everyone together is the open source software behind our printed circuit boards.

Twenty-five different talks covered basic KiCad usage, automating tasks, PCB layout techniques, and projects designed in KiCad. Wayne Stambaugh ended the first day with a State-of-KiCad discussion. He introduced the feature list for KiCad 6. Additionally, he announced four new lead developers and that he would be working on KiCad full time. That news means it is likely KiCad 6 will be here faster than the usual two-year release cycle.

In addition to the talks, there were several workshops and panel discussions. The workshops included a getting started with KiCad lead by Shawn Hymel [link]. That one was cool to keep an eye on because people were designing their first PCB, milling it, and then soldering parts to make the boards blink. In another workshop, Anool Mahidharia provided a hands-on guided introduction to FreeCAD. It is a parametric mechnical cad tool. The panels featuerd PCB manufactureres, workflow discussions, and the KiCad development team.

Outside of the planned classes and activities, I finally shook hands with friends whom I only knew through social media. Even though we are all electronics enthusiast or professional engineers, it is rare we end up at the same place at the same time. See what I mean about KiCad connecting liked minded people together?

With so much going on, I realized I couldn’t cover everything. Instead, this post’s focus is the tidbits I learned at the conference and stuck with me after a little bit of time passed. Here are the six things I learned at KiCon 2019.

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