Easy and Effective Way to Measure PWM… Without a Scope!

Sometimes when a project is coming together, you need to cobble a tool together to get it completed. Whether it’s something very involved, like building a 3D printer to fabricate custom parts, or something relatively simple, like wiring a lightbulb and a battery together to create a simple continuity checker, we’ve all had to come up with something on the fly. Despite having access to an oscilloscope, [Brian] aka [schoolie] has come up with his own method for measuring PWM period and duty cycle without a scope, just in case there’s ever a PWM emergency!

The system he has come up with is so simple it’s borderline genius. The PWM signal in question is fed through a piezo speaker in parallel with a resistor. The output from the speaker is then sent to an FFT (fast fourier transform) app for Android devices, which produces a picture of a waveform. [schoolie] then opens the picture in MS Paint and uses the coordinates of the cursor and a little arithmetic to compute the period and the duty cycle.

For not using a scope, this method is pretty accurate, and only uses two discrete circuit components (the resistor and the speaker). If you’re ever in a pinch with PWM, this is sure to help, and be a whole lot cheaper than finding an oscilloscope!

Serial Surgery Saves Wacom Tablet from Landfill

Years ago, [Greg] got a Wacom Artpad II graphics tablet through Freecycle. What’s the catch, you ask? The stylus was long gone. When he found out how expensive a direct replacement would be, the tablet was laid to rest in his spare parts box. Fast forward a few years to the era of the phone-tablet hybrid and [Greg]’s subsequent realization that some of them use Wacom stylii. Eight bucks later, he’s in business, except that the tablet is serial. Wacom no longer supports serial tablets, so he had to convert it to USB.

With the help of the WaxBee project and a Teensy 2.0, he would be able to emulate an Intuous2 tablet by sniffing and re-encoding the packets.  Things got a little hairy when he went under the hood to remove the ADM202 TTL-to-RS232 chip with a Dremel—he accidentally gouged some of the pads it sat on as well as a few of the traces. Feeling frustrated, [Greg] took some high-res pictures of the board and posted them to a message board. As it turns out, those pictures helped him recreate the traces and get the tablet running. A little big of glue and tape later, he was in business. [Greg] even gave himself access to reprogram the Teensy.

Creating a Scanning Monochromator

If you need a specific wavelength of light for research purposes, the naïve way of obtaining that is a white source light, a prism, and a small slit that will move across your own personal Dark Side of the Moon album cover. This is actually a terrible idea; not only won’t you have a reference of exactly what wavelength of light you’re letting through the optical slit, the prism itself will absorb more of one wavelength of light than others.

The solution is a monochromator, a device that performs the same feat of research without all the drawbacks. [Shahriar] got his hands on an old manual monochromator and decided to turn it into a device that performs automatic scans.

The key of a monochromator is a diffraction grating, a mirrored surface with many fine parallel grooves arranged in a step pattern. Because of the surface of the diffraction grating, it’s possible to separate light according to its spectrum much like a prism. Unlike a prism, it’s effectively a first surface mirror meaning all wavelengths of light are reflected more or less equally.

By adding a stepper motor to the dial of his monochromator, [Shahriar] was able to automatically scan across the entire range of the device. Inside the monochromator is a photomultiplier tube that samples the incoming light and turns it into a voltage. By sampling this voltage and plotting it with MATLAB, [Shahriar] was able to plot the intensity of every wavelength of light within the range of the device. It’s all expertly explained in the video below.

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A Modern Woodworking Workbench

This is a post about workbenches, but not the benches you’re probably thinking about. Workbenches meant for electronics development are simple matters – just about any flat surface, a few shelves for equipment, and an anti-static mat will be fine for every conceivable use.  Workbenches for woodworking are a separate matter entirely. There’s actually quite a bit of history behind the development of the woodworking workbench, but the basic idea is a thick laminated wood top, integrated vices, holes in the work surface for bench dogs, and ergonomics that allow for comfortable use of hand tools. The basic design of these benches hasn’t changed much in several hundred years, and [Dirk] thought the design was ready for a modern update.

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Upgrading a Laminator for Toner Transfer PCBs

If you need a circuit board now, you’re probably looking at a toner transfer process; all you need to make a PCB is a copper clad board, a laser printer, some special paper, and the usual etching chemicals. The quality of these boards is highly dependant on the quality of transferring toner to the copper, and getting the process right is as much an art as it is a science. A clothes iron is the easy way of transferring the toner to the board, but if you’re looking for repeatability, you’ll probably want a laminator.

Laminators, too, also vary in quality. The king of toner transfer laminators is the Apache AL13P. With four heated rollers and a steel chassis, it’s enough to do some serious heating. [mosaicmerc] came up with an amazing mod for his Apache laminator that takes all the guesswork out of the settings, and does it all in one pass for maximum repeatability and PCB quality.

The Apache laminator in question is a beast of a machine that drives four rollers with a synchronous motor and also has a ‘reverse’ button that sends the laminations out the front end of the printer. Stock, a toner transfer PCB would require dozens of passes through the Apache, but [merc]’s mod takes care of everything for you.

The addition that makes this possible is a small board with a PIC12 microcontroller. This microcontroller connects the motor driver board and the display interface together, triggering the reverse button to move the board 5/8″ forward and 1/2″ back, giving the laminator an effective speed reduction of 12:1. This method also has the bonus of not tampering with the motor or control circuitry, and allows for multiple passes in the same run.

With this modification, the Apache AL13P becomes the perfect solution to transferring toner to a piece of copper, with the ability to transfer 10mil traces on 1oz copper. The board also offers some other features like thermal sensor failure shutdown and a cool-down mode that overrides the heater. If you’re looking for an easy way to step up your toner transfer PCBs, you can’t do much better than this mod.

Automated CAD Design for Enclosures

[Jon] a.k.a. [Pedantite] recently added small-scale laser cutting to his business and thought about using that laser cutter to add some value to some of the many project designs he creates. Yes, this means custom laser cut enclosures, but how to go about it? [Jon] loves automation, and that can only mean automated design of laser cut enclosures by reading the board files from his project library.

The idea of automating the design of plastic enclosures was to read the design files, figure out the dimensions of the board and where the mounting holes go, and generate a file for the laser cutter. The weapon of choice was OpenSCAD, a design language that can be highly parameterized, read external design files, and spit out proper DXF files for laser cutting.

[Jon] set up his toolchain as a Python script that reads design files, sends parameters off to a .SCAD file, and generates a DXF for the laser cutter. There’s also a bit that generates enough data for Blender to render a 3D image of the finished product, all only from gerbers, a drill file, and a few user variables.

The source for these files haven’t been released yet, but that’s only because it’s in a proof-of-concept stage right now. You can check out an example of a render of one of the cases below.

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RTL SDR As A Spectrum Analyzer

RTL-SDR, the USB TV tuner turned software-defined radio is an amazing device, capable of listening to nearly anything from 25MHz to 1750MHz, fits in your pocket, and costs about $20. Even more astonishing is that it’s also a kinda-okay spectrum analyzer. [Kerry D. Wong] tested out one of these USB TV tuner, and the results are exactly what you would expect: it lacks a little precision, and sampling bandwidth is only a tiny bit terrible, but it does work.

A stock USB TV tuner doesn’t come with a connector that would normally be used for spectrum analysis. A BNC connector can be easily attached, as can a terminator to match the 75Ω impedance of the SDR. This isn’t really necessary; the frequencies being measured are low enough that you can get away without one.

As far as software goes, [Kerry] first pulled out the usual suspects of the SDR world; rtlsdr-scanner distorted the measured spectrum, as did a lot of other SDR receivers. Gqrx SDR was the first one that worked well, but the king of this repurposing of USB TV tuners was OSMOCOM. There’s a huge number of tools for spectrum analysis right out of the box with this package.

How did the RTL SDR fare as a spectrum analyzer? Feeding some stuff in from a signal generator, [Kerry] discovered the LO in the RTL SDR was off by a hair. Also, OSMOCOM only measures amplitude in dB, not the dBm found in every other spectrum analyzer ever made. By measuring a 0 dBm signal whatever value displayed can be shifted up or down.

So, does it work? Yes, it does. If, for some reason, you need a spectrum analyzer now, can you use this? Yep. Pretty cool.