How to Control Your Instruments From A Computer: It’s Easier Than You Think

There was a time when instruments sporting a GPIB connector (General Purpose Interface Bus) for computer control on their back panels were expensive and exotic devices, unlikely to be found on the bench of a hardware hacker. Your employer or university would have had them, but you’d have been more likely to own an all-analogue bench that would have been familiar to your parents’ generation.

A GPIB/IEEE488 plug. Alkamid [CC BY-SA 3.], via Wikimedia Commons
A GPIB/IEEE488 plug. Alkamid [CC BY-SA 3.], via Wikimedia Commons.
The affordable instruments in front of you today may not have a physical GPIB port, but the chances are they will have a USB port or even Ethernet over which you can exert the same control. The manufacturer will provide some software to allow you to use it, but if it doesn’t cost anything you’ll be lucky if it is either any good, or available for a platform other than Microsoft Windows.

So there you are, with an instrument that speaks a fully documented protocol through a physical interface you have plenty of spare sockets for, but if you’re a Linux user and especially if you don’t have an x86 processor, you’re a bit out of luck on the software front. Surely there must be a way to make your computer talk to it!

Let’s give it a try — I’ll be using a Linux machine and a popular brand of oscilloscope but the technique is widely applicable.

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Ikea Desk Lamp That Will Defend Your Lungs

While some people may enjoy the occasional whiff of noxious smells — gasoline, axe body spray, etc — prolonged exposure to fumes is not good for your health. This goes for soldering too, isn’t it about time you added some abatement to your bench tools?

Inspired by some of the fume hoods we’ve featured before — take note, ye who art lacking projects — [Georg Sluyterman] put together his own Ikea lamp fume extractor.

The most striking feature is that it’s mounted on an Ikea desk lamp making for convenient positioning and minimal clutter. A NeoPixels strip lights up your soldering space while the PIR sensor activates the fan when it detects movement. A WeMos D1 Mini is included for WiFi connectivity but that feature still down the road a little bit. The functionality that is in place is still quite impressive; more on that after the break.

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Documentation? Wave Me!

A lot of hardware and software hackers aren’t all that keen on documentation. The problem is, if you don’t document, it is harder for people to replicate or build on your work. If you aren’t happy writing, keep the old adage in mind: a picture is worth a thousand words.

With a digital design, a timing diagram is often a key piece of documentation. WaveMe is a free Windows program that makes it easy to create good-looking timing diagrams. You can run the software on other platforms via Wine.

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Getting a Handle on ESR with a Couple of DIY Meters

Got a bunch of questionable electrolytic caps sitting in your junk bin? Looking to recap a vintage radio chassis? Then you might need to measure the equivalent series resistance of the capacitors, in which case this simple five-transistor ESR meter might come in handy.

Even if you have no need for an ESR meter, [W2AEW]’s video below is a solid introduction to how ESR is determined. The circuit itself comes from EEVBlog forum user [Jay-Diddy_B] and is about as simple as such a circuit can get. Two transistors form an oscillator that generates a square wave that drives a resistor bridge network. The two legs of the bridge feed matched common-emitter amps, one leg through the device under test. The difference in voltage between the two legs is read on a meter, and you have a quick and simple way to sort through the caps in your junk bin. [Jay-Diddy_B]’s circuit is only presented in breadboard form; no attempt was made to field a practical instrument. Indeed, [W2AEW] already built a home-brew ESR meter using hex inverters and op amps to which he compares the five-transistor circuit’s results. His intention here seems to be to clarify the technique of ESR measurement and evaluate an even simpler circuit than his. We think he’s done a good job on both counts.

We’ve featured plenty of [WA2AEW]’s work before, like this Michigan Mity-Mite transmitter or his primer on oscilloscopes. We really like his laid back style and the way he makes complex topics easy to understand. Check them out.

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Fun with Fire: Oxy-Acetylene Basics

If generations of Hollywood heist films have taught us anything, it’s that knocking off a bank vault is pretty easy. It usually starts with a guy and a stethoscope, but that never works, so the bad guys break out the cutting torch and burn their way in. But knowing how to harness that raw power means you’ve got to learn the basics of oxy-acetylene, and [This Old Tony]’s new video will get your life of crime off on the right foot.

In another well-produced video, [Tony] goes into quite a bit of detail on the mysteries of oxygen and acetylene and how to handle them without blowing yourself up. He starts with a tour of the equipment, including an interesting look at the internals of an acetylene tank — turns out the gas is stored dissolved in acetone in a porous matrix inside the tank. Working up the hoses, he covers the all-important flashback arrestors, the different styles of torches, and even the stoichiometry of hydrocarbon combustion and how adjusting the oxygen flow results in different flame types for different jobs. He shows how oxy-acetylene welding can be the poor man’s TIG, and finally satisfies that destructive urge by slicing through a piece of 3/8″ steel in under six seconds.

We’ve always wanted a decent oxy-acetylene rig, and [Tony] has convinced us that this is yet another must-have for the shop. There’s just so much you can do with them, not least of which is unsticking corroded fasteners. But if a blue wrench is out of your price range and you still want to stick metal together, you’ll want to learn how to braze aluminum with a propane torch.

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An Introduction to CNC Machine Control

We recently gave you some tips on purchasing your first milling machine, but what we didn’t touch on was CNC (Computer Numerical Control) systems for milling machines (or other machines, like lathes). That’s because CNC is a complex topic, and it’s deserving of its own article. So, today we dive into what CNC is, how it works, and ultimately if it’s right for you as a hobbyist.

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Brazing Aluminum

Where do you stand on one of the eternal questions of metalwork: brazing, or welding? As your Hackaday writer, and the daughter of a blacksmith, it’s very much on the welding side here. Brazed joints can come apart too easily, which is why in the territory this is being written in at least, they are not permitted for the yearly vehicle roadworthiness test. If you’ve ever had to remove a brazed-on patch with an angle grinder, you’ll know which one you’d trust in a crisis.

What if the metal in question is aluminum? [George Graves] sends us a link to a forum discussion on the subject from a few years ago, and to a YouTube video which we’ve embedded below the break. Miracle brazing rods claim astounding toughness, but the world divides into those who favour TIG’s strength versus those who point to brazing’s penetration far between the surfaces of the metal to be joined. Having experimented with them a while back, we’ll admit that it’s true that aluminum brazing rods join broken parts impressively well. But yet again you won’t see this Hackaday writer riding a bike that wasn’t welded with the trusty TIG torch.

Take a look at the video, and see what you think. Even if it’s not a joint you’d stake your life on it’s still a technique that’s a useful addition to your workshop arsenal.

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