Nanocounter: Frequency Counter with an Android UI

Have you ever started a project, run into an issue, started a new project to solve the issue, and completely forgot about the original project? [Andy] went down a rabbit hole of needing a tool to calibrate an MCU oscillator, but not having an accurate way to measure frequency. Most people would just buy a frequency counter and be done with it, but [Andy] decided to build his own.

The Nanocounter is an accurate, open source frequency counter that uses an Android phone as its display. It’s based on a high accuracy temperature compensated crystal oscillator (TCXO) fed into a phase locked loop (PLL) to create a high frequency, accurate reference clock.

This reference clock, along with the signal to be measured, are sent into a Xilinx FPGA which uses a method called equal precision measurement to determine the frequency. A STM32F072 microcontroller uses a SPI interface to get this data out of the FPGA, and controls the whole system. Finally, a cheap HC-06 Bluetooth module facilitates communication with an Android device.

The project achieves the goal of frequency counting, though [Andy] doesn’t remember what project sparked the idea to build it. (Classic yak shaving!) But the result is a great read of a detailed writeup, and you can watch a video of the Nanocounter in action after the break. That’s a win in our book.

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You Speak, Your Scope Obeys

We’ve been scratching our heads about the various voice-recognition solutions out there. What would you really want to use one for? Turning off the lights in your bedroom without getting up? Sure, it has some 2001: A Space Odyssey flare flair, but frankly we’ve already got a remote control for that. The best justification for voice control, in our mind, is controlling something while your hands or eyes are already busy.

[Patrick Sébastien Coulombe] clearly has both of his hands on his oscilloscope probes. That’s why he developed Speech2SCPI, a quick mash-up of voice recognition and an oscilloscope control protocol. It combines the Julius open-source speech recognizer project with the Standard Commands for Programmable Instruments (SCPI) syntax to make his scope obey his every command. You’ve got to watch the video below the break to believe how well it works. It even handles his French accent.

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Handy Power Supply with 3D Printed Case

You can never have too many power supplies around your workbench. It is easy to buy them or cobble something together for most purposes. But once in a while you see one that is simple and also looks good, like this one from [RegisHsu].

The project is simple since it uses off-the-shelf DC-to-DC converter modules, and good-looking LED meters to measure voltage and current. The dual supply can accept 5 to 16 V in (presumably from a wall transformer) and deliver 1.3 V to 15.5 V out at 2 amps. [RegisHsu] removed an adjustment pot from the converter board and replaced it with a 10-turn pot to allow voltage adjustment.

Given the parts, you probably don’t even need a wiring diagram. However, the part that brings it together is the 3D-printed case, which [RegisHsu] has on Thingiverse. We’ve looked at muti-turn pot replacements before, and this is hardly the first power supply project we’ve posted.

Electric Compass for a Plasma Cutter

If you are a Maker space or individual lucky enough to own a Plasma Cutter, this electric protractor compass could be handy. The folks over at [MakeItExtreme] built this circle cutting tool to help cut circles and rings in thick metal sheets using their plasma cutter.

The whole thing is built around an electro-magnet, so the jig will only work with magnetic metals. There are not a lot of design details, but it’s possible to infer how to build one looking at the video and the photos on their blog. There’s a couple of nice hacks along the way. Since the electro-magnet is stationary while the rest of the jig rotates, the main mounting bolt had a hole drilled through it to help route the cable. The rotating protractor arm is made from a slab of aluminium and holds all the other parts together – the drive motor, the central hub and the plasma head. The motor used appears to be a 60rpm AC synchro motor. These types usually have an RC phase shifting network between the two coils to allow direction reversal. Friction drive is used to rotate the jig, with the friction coming from a pair of rubber tube bands attached to the electro-magnet and the motor drive hub. The plasma head holder has a rod-end with a roller bearing attached, acting as a caster wheel, ensuring the arc gap is maintained as the jig rotates. A few switches to activate the electro-magnet, motor forward / reverse and plasma enable complete the setup.

Their blog, and YouTube channel has a lot of other interesting projects that they keep building. Check it out.

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Arduino Nano Runs Battery Spot Welder

Soldering might look like a tempting and cheap alternative when building or repairing a battery pack, but the heat of the iron could damage the cell, and the resulting connection won’t be as good as a weld. Fortunately, though, a decent spot welder isn’t that tough to build, as [KaeptnBalu] shows us with his Arduino-controlled battery spot welder.

spot_welder_zoomWhen it comes to delivering the high currents necessary for spot welding, the Arduino Nano is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. But the need for a precisely controlled welding pulse makes the microcontroller a natural for this build, as long as the current handling is outsourced. In [KaeptnBalu]’s build, he lets an array of beefy MOSFETs on a separate PCB handle the welding current. The high-current wiring is particularly interesting – heavy gauge stranded wire is split in half, formed into a U, tinned, and each leg gets soldered to the MOSFET board. Welding tips are simply solid copper wire, and the whole thing is powered by a car battery, or maybe two if the job needs extra amps. The video below shows the high-quality welds the rig can produce.

Spot welders are a favorite on Hackaday, and we’ve seen both simple and complicated builds. This build hits the sweet spot of complexity and functionality, and having one on hand would open up a lot of battery-hacking possibilities.

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The Hacker’s Notebook: a Mission Log for Every Project

While “writing it down” might seem like common sense, it wasn’t always the case. From the times of Ancient Greece, Plato tells a story of a worried Egyptian King, who, upon witnessing the invention of writing, remarks,

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. [1]”

To some, the notebook was a dangerous device, a thief that would rob us of our memories [2]. Fortunately, these days, there’s plenty of evidence from our Psych texts that say we humans are pretty shabby at keeping the facts straight. In fact, each time we recall a memory, we change it! Here lies the beauty of the notebook. Have an idea for a new project? Why not log it somewhere for future reference? With diligence, the notebook can become our own personal hub for spurring on new project ideas.

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So, You’re Scared Of Surface Mount

If you are lucky enough to encounter a piece of homebrew electronics from the 1950s, the chances are that under the covers the components will be assembled on solder tags, each component with long leads, and chassis-mounted sockets for tubes. Easy to assemble with the most agricultural of soldering irons.

Open up a home build from the 1960s or early 1970s, and you might find the same passive components alongside germanium transistors mounted through holes in a curious widely spaced stripboard or even a home-made PCB with chunky wide tracks.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s you would find a more familiar sight. Dual-in-line ICs through-hole on 0.1″ spaced stripboard, and home-made PCBs starting to appear on fibreglass board. Easy to use, easy to solder. Familiar. Safe. Exactly what you’ll see on your breadboard nearly forty years later, and still what you’ll see from a lot of kit manufacturers.

Nice and familiar, a through-hole Arduino. By Nicholas Zambetti - http://www.arduino.cc/, CC BY-SA 3.0
Nice and familiar, a through-hole Arduino.
By Nicholas Zambetti CC BY-SA 3.0

But we all know that progress in the world of electronic components has not stood still. Surface-mount components have a history going back to the 1960s, and started to appear in consumer equipment from the end of the 1980s. More components per square inch, smaller, cheaper devices. Nowadays they are ubiquitous, and increasingly these new components are not offered in through-hole versions. Not a problem if your experiments are limited to the 741 and the 555, but something that rather cramps your style if your tastes extend to novel sensors for a microcontroller, or RF work.

This development has elicited a range of reactions. Many people have embraced the newer medium with pleasure, and the Hackaday.io project pages are full of really clever SMD projects as a result. But a significant number have not been able to make the jump to SMD, maybe they are put off by the smaller size of SMD components, the special tools they might require, or even the new skills they’d have to learn. When you sell a kit with SMD components these are the reactions you will hear from people who like the kit but wish it was available in through-hole, so this article is for them. To demystify working with SMDs, and to demonstrate that SMD work should be within the grasp of almost anyone who can wield a soldering iron.

But They’re So Tiny!

Tiny SMDs - fortunately most of which you will not have to worry about.
Tiny SMDs – fortunately most of which you will not have to worry about.

It’s likely to be the first reaction from a lifelong through-hole solderer. SMD parts are often very small indeed, and even those with larger packages can have leads that seem as numerous and thin as the hairs on a cat when seen with the rabbit-in-the-headlights panic of the uninitiated.

But it is important to take a step back and understand that not all SMDs are created equal. Some of them are grain-of-sand tiny and only hand-solderable by those with God-like powers, but plenty of devices are available in SMD packages large enough for mere mortals.

So don’t worry when you look at a board covered with grain-of-dust-sized components. Very few people could attempt that level of construction, your scribe certainly can’t. (We await commenters claiming to routinely hand-solder thousand-pin BGAs and 01005 chip components with anticipation, however such claims are useless without proof.)

Instead, concentrate on the SMD packages you can handle. SMD chip component packages are refered to by a number that relates to their dimension. Confusingly there are both metric and imperial versions of the scheme, but the format is the same: length followed by width.

Consider the picture above with the PCB and the tape measure, it’s the underside of a Raspberry Pi model B+, and will have been assembled by a robotic pick-and-place machine. The majority of the components are very tiny indeed, but you will notice L3 as the black component towards the bottom left that looks huge compared to its neighbours. That package is a “1008”, 0.1 inches long by 0.08 inches wide. It’s still tiny, but imagine picking it up with a pair of tweezers under a magnifying glass. Not so bad, is it. You’ve probably handled plenty of things in that size range before, do SMD parts seem so scary now? The larger components – 0805, 1008, and 1206 – are surprisingly within the grasp of the average maker.

But I need all sorts of special tools!

Retro Populator, a homebrew pick-and-place machine we featured back in 2014
Retro Populator, a homebrew pick-and-place machine we featured back in 2014

In a commercial environment an SMD device will be assembled by machine. Glue or solder paste will be printed in the relevant parts of the board, and a robotic pick-and-place machine will retrieve components from their tape packaging and automatically place them in their correct orientations. The board will then be soldered all-at once, either in a reflow oven or by a wave soldering machine.

If you’re new to SMDs you are unlikely to have any of this kit just lying around on your bench. There are self-built pick-and-place machines and a host of self-built reflow ovens, but it’s safe to say they’re still quite an advanced thing to have.

You’ll also see all manner of commercial kit aimed at the bench-top SMD constructor. Hot air soldering stations or SMD bits for conventional irons, all of which are very useful but come with a hefty price tag.

The good news is that you don’t need any of these special tools to dip your toe into the SMD water. You almost certainly already have everything you need, and if you don’t then very little of what you lack is specifically for SMD work. If you have the following items then you are good to go:

A basic SMD soldering toolkit
A basic SMD soldering toolkit

A good light source. Even the larger SMDs are still pretty small. Plenty of light ensures you will be able to see them clearly. A good downward pointing desk lamp should suffice. A clear high-contrast surface. Because SMDs can be difficult to see, it helps if they are manipulated over a bright white surface. A fresh sheet of white printer paper on a desk makes a suitable working area. Good hands-free magnification. Unless you are fortunate enough to have amazing eyesight, you will need a decent magnifier to work with surface-mount components. The “Helping hands” type on a stand are suitable. A very small flat-blade screwdriver. You will need this to hold surface-mount components down while you solder them. A good-quality set of precision metal tweezers. You will need these for picking up, manipulating, and turning over surface-mount devices. A fine-tipped soldering iron. If you have a standard fine tipped iron suitable for use with conventional 0.1” pitch through-hole components then you should be well-equipped.

That said there is one special tool that might be worth your consideration. Holding an SMD device while soldering it can sometimes seem like a task that needs three hands, so one or two tools can be found to help. Fortunately this is something you can build yourself. Take a look at the SMD Beak, a weighted arm for example, or your scribe’s spring clamp third hand.

I’m sorry, this is just beyond my soldering skill level

Desolder braid and plenty of flux are your friends.
Desolder braid and plenty of flux are your friends.

It is easy to imagine when you are looking at an SMD integrated circuit that its pins are just too small and too close together, you couldn’t possibly solder them by hand. The answer is that of course you can, you simply need to view how you solder them in a different way.

With a through-hole IC you solder each 0.1″ pitch pin individually. It is something of a disaster if you manage to put a solder bridge between two pins, and you race for your desolder pump or braid.

With a surface-mount IC by comparison there is little chance that you as a mere mortal could solder each pin individually, so you don’t even try. Instead you solder an entire row at once with an excess of solder, and remove the resulting huge solder bridge with desolder braid to leave a very tidy and professional-looking job. Surface tension and plenty of flux are your friends, and there is very little soldering skill required that you do not already have if you are an experienced through-hole solderer.

If you can hold it down onto the board and see it clearly with your magnifier if necessary, then it doesn’t matter what the component is, you can solder it. Give it a try, you’ll surprise yourself!

What next?

1206 chip discrete components hand-soldered to a PCB
1206 chip discrete components hand-soldered to a PCB

So we hope we’ve convinced you as an SMD doubter, that you have the ability to work with SMDs yourself. What next?

Start by reading up on the subject. Your favourite search engine should deliver, tutorials can be found from Sparkfun, from Adafruit, or from Instructables among many others. And look for videos, YouTube has a huge number of SMD soldering guides.

But there is no substitute for practice. Find a scrap board populated with reasonably-sized surface-mount components, and have a go at reworking it. Desoldering its components may be a bit difficult, but you should easily be able to rework the solder joints. Slather an integrated circuit’s pins with flux, and try running a blob of molten solder along them, then removing the excess with desolder braid. The great thing about a scrap board is that it doesn’t matter if you damage it, so you can practice these techniques to your heart’s content until you are satisfied with your new-found skill.

So you’re ready to move forward, and make your first SMD project. Well done! What you do next is up to you. Design your own circuit and get a PCB made, buy a kit, or find an SMD project you like on Hackaday.io with downloadable PCB files and order your own.

Whatever you do, be happy that you’ve conquered your SMD fears, and resolve to be first in the queue to try any new technology in the future!