Absolute Power

We recently noticed a very cool-looking series of power supply modules on a few of the Chinese deal web sites. Depending on the model, they provide a digitally-controlled voltage with metering. You need to provide at least a volt or so over the maximum desired output voltage. You can see a video from [iforce2d] below. The module in the video is rated for 5A at 50V maximum, but there are other sizes available. For those interested in graphs and numbers [lgyte] did a lot of characterization of these modules.

There was a time when importing goods from far away places was somewhat of an art. Finding suppliers, working out payment, shipping, and customs meant you had to know what you were doing. Today, you just surf the web, find what you want, pay with PayPal, and stuff shows up on your doorstep from all four corners of the globe.

There is one problem, though. We see a lot of cool stuff from China and some of it is excellent, especially for the price. Frankly, though, some of it is junk. It is hard to tell which is which. What’s more is even though in theory you might be able to return something, usually the freight charges make that impractical. So when you get a dud, you are likely to just eat it and chalk it up to experience. So the question is: how good (or bad) or these power supply modules?

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Akiba: Shenzhen in 30 Minutes

Multi-talented hacker extraordinaire and electrical engineer [Akiba] is based in Japan, and this makes it just a hop, skip, and a jump over to Shenzhen, China, the hardware capital of the world. He’s led a number of manufacturing tours aimed at acquainting hackers with the resources there, and now he’s giving you the benefit of his experience in a 30-minute video. It’s great.

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Ask Hackaday: What Should Father Christmas Bring From Shenzhen?

Imagine this, you have a friend who grew up in Shenzhen, China. The place from whence all your really cool electronics come these days. They speak Chinese in a way only someone born there can, and given that you know them through a shared interest in hardware hacking you can assume they know their way round those famous electronics marts of their home town.

Now, imagine that in a rash move, your friend has offered to pick up a few bits for you on their next trip home. A whole city-sized electronic candy store opens up in front of you, but what do you ask for them to seek out?

Before you continue, consider this. Why has Shenzhen become the powerhouse of electronic manufacturing (and everything else) that it is? Economists will give you pages of fascinating background, but if you want a simple answer it is that those electronics are produced for export, and that its citizens are only too happy to export them to you. Therefore if you want to get your hands on electronics from Shenzhen you do not need a friend who is a native of the city, all you need is a web browser and a PayPal account.

We have all become used to seeking out the cool stuff and eagerly waiting for a padded envelope from China Post a week or two later, so there are very few items that are worth putting a friend to the extra task of finding. At which point you realize that it is the candy store rather than the candy itself which is so alluring, and you ask your friend for a video walkthrough with commentary of their travels through the electronics marts. Oh, and maybe a Chinese Raspberry Pi with red solder resist, just for the collection.

If you had a friend about to board a plane to Shenzhen, what would you ask them to find for you that you can’t just buy for yourself online? Remember, nothing that’ll land them with awkward questions at either airport, nor anything that’ll land them with a hefty customs bill. That’s a very good way to end a friendship.

Huaqiangbei skyline image: Edward Rivens (PD) via Wikimedia Commons.

Books You Should Read: Poorly Made In China

This book is scary, and honestly I can’t decide if I should recommend it or not. It’s not a guide, it doesn’t offer solutions, and it’s full of so many cautionary tales and descriptions of tricks and scams that you will wonder how any business gets done in China at all. If you are looking for a reason not to manufacture in China, then this is the book for you.

The author is not involved in the electronics industry. Most of the book describes a single customer in the personal products field (soap, shampoo, lotions, creams, etc.). He does describe other industries, and says that in general most factories in any industry will try the same tricks, and confirms this with experiences from other similar people in his position as local intermediary for foreign importers.

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Searching for USB Power Supplies that Won’t Explode

USB power supplies are super cheap and omnipresent. They are the Tribble of my household. But they’re not all created equal, and some of them may even be dangerous. I had to source USB power supplies for a product, and it wasn’t easy. But the upside is that I got to tear them all apart and check out their designs.

In order to be legitimate, it’s nice (but not legally required) for a power supply to have UL approval. Some retailers and offices and building managers require it, and some insurance companies may not pay claims if it turns out the damage was caused by a non-UL-approved device.  UL approval is not an easy process, though, and it is time consuming and expensive. The good news is that if you are developing a low voltage DC product, you can pair it with a UL approved power supply and you’re good to go without any further testing necessary.

power_supply_1_overviewIf you are going for FCC approval and are having unintentional emissions testing done (which is more likely than UL as it’s a legal requirement for products that meet certain qualifications), the testing has to be done on the whole solution, so the power supply must be included in the testing, too.

Sourcing cheap electronics in large quantities usually ends up in China, and specifically Alibaba. First, we started with a how-low-can-you-go solution. This wasn’t even a power adapter; it was a power “adapteP”, and the whole batch was mis-printed. Quality control could not be a high priority. After cutting it open, it wasn’t terrible, and it had all the necessary parts. It was surprising how much of it was through-hole, which indicates that the assembly was done mostly by people. That happens when factories are cheaper, hire inexpensive labor, don’t invest in technology, and don’t care as much about quality.

There are certain things you should look for in a power supply to determine the level of risk:

  • Isolation Distance – This is how much space there is between the primary (AC) and secondary (DC 5V) sides. UL requires a few millimeters, and often you’ll see two separate PCBs. On many single-PCB solutions you’ll see a white line meander across the board to distinguish between the two. The smaller this separation, the closer your USB power is to AC line voltage, and if the gap is bridged somehow, you’re in for a world of hurt.
  • Fuse – if there is a short, a lot of current starts flowing, components heat up, and things get dangerous. A thermal cut-off (TCO) fuse (also known as a resettable fuse or a PTC) is a component that breaks the circuit when it gets too hot, like a circuit chaperon. When it cools off, the TCO resets and you can plug the device back in with no harm done. Without the fuse, the supply heats up and current keeps flowing until a component fries, sometimes explosively.
  • Connectors – You don’t want bare leads hanging out in space where they could move and touch something. You don’t want the USB port to be soldered only by its four pins. You don’t want the power pins to be loose.
  • Decent Label – “Adaptep”? Yes, to someone who uses a different alphabet the “P” and R are very similar characters. But still. Also, fake certifications abound. Look for the difference between the CE (China Export) and the CE (Conformité Européenne) labels. And the UL Logo should have a number. So should an FCC label.

So this first adapter? Isolation distance was fine because it was two separate boards, but there was no fuse and no protective tape between components. The connectors were all secure, but the label didn’t make any promises. As for performance, output at 5.34V under my product’s load meant it was a little outside of USB spec (5.25V limit), but not dangerous. On the scope it was ringing with a peak at 5.5 V at 4 kHz.

Of course, sourcing this supply for a second batch proved tricky, and we wanted the USB plug to come out the side instead of the front so it would have a thinner profile against a wall. Additionally, we needed UL approval for a client. Our second attempt was surprisingly successful. This adapter had UL certification, with a number to look up. Note that just having a number isn’t enough; many companies will just put someone else’s number on their product and assume nobody will bother to check. So when you do look it up, and find a different manufacturer, a different enclosure, and it looks more like a refrigerator than a USB power supply, don’t be too surprised. But no, this particular one was great! The label had a company name on it, model number and specs, and certifications that could be verified. Let’s tear it open!

power_supply_2_overviewSweet sweet silicon meat inside an ABS shell! Components wrapped in protective tape, two PCBs for isolation, and even a special injection-molded plastic piece to add additional protection. Components are labeled, and what’s this, an IC to control the oscillation instead of a feedback winding on the transformer? Fancy! It’s pretty clear that this power supply is good, and I’d trust this one.

Comparing this one to the others, there were so many noticeable little details that are important and clearly thought-out. Take, for example, the connection between the prongs and the PCB. On the previous board, it was made with wires soldered by hand. Solid, but time consuming and prone to failure or quality issues. This adapter has metal contacts that snap into the case very solidly so that the prongs cannot get loose. The connection to the PCB is via the springiness of the metal, but notice that the PCB has pads specifically designed to maximize the surface area of that connection. On the next PCB you’ll see no such effort.

Some components were covered in shrink tube, tape, or non-conductive grey adhesive. The assembly was tight with no room for components to shake loose or accidentally touch. And the output was perfect. 4.9 Volts with nary a ripple.

But this is China, and component sourcing problems are a thing, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when these supplies were no longer available. In retrospect, maybe these were unsold overstock, or possibly QC rejects. That would explain why they were only slightly more expensive than the others. And so we moved on to another supplier; one that could pad-print our logo on top.

power_supply_differencesAt first glance these power supplies appeared identical. But close inspection reveals slight differences in the style around the USB and the raised ridges on the underside. The label was completely different, and gone was the number next to the UL logo. There was no company name on the supply either, and the company we purchased from turned out to be a reseller and not the OEM. Also, why was the output 4.7-5V, and why did my scope say 5.5V (but surprisingly stable)?

Inside was a completely different beast. Using a single PCB, the creep distance was about a millimeter. You can see the white line meandering through the bottom of the PCB that shows the high and low sides. The USB port wasn’t soldered to the PCB except by the four signal/power pins (see the bottom side lower left and the hanging USB connection pins), and there was a capacitor with really long uncovered leads and the positive side dangerously close to the USB shell. There was almost no protective tape, no shrink tube on the leads, and no protection in case of a short.


In the end, I wouldn’t trust the two non-UL supplies with anything worth more than a few bucks, and certainly not my cell phone. I’d have really big reservations about reselling them to customers who don’t know the difference. The UL-approved one was great, but the other two are only good for powering low-current-draw devices that are not sensitive to voltage. Also, finding a reliable supplier in China is HARD.

Check out a much more thorough analysis of this and pretty much every USB power supply cube by [Ken Shirriff]. It’s surprising how little has changed in four years with these supplies, and his analysis goes into how the circuits behind these supplies work, identifying each component and its purpose.

We also covered a Sparkfun teardown of some power supplies with similar conclusions, and a Fail of the Week in which a faulty USB power adapter was the likely cause of a fire.

How To Know When An Accelerator Is Not Right For Your Startup

A few weeks ago we ran an article on the benefits of accelerator programs. While I agreed with almost everything in it, the article still bothered me, and I wanted to start a discussion about when an accelerator is not appropriate. So many startups are regularly asked “have you thought about Kickstarter? Shark Tank? Are you raising money? YCombinator?” These questions are constantly ingrained into people’s brains and they come to think those are the only options.

The reality is that there are lots of ways to build a company, and Kickstarter, Shark Tank, angel investors, and accelerators are all new within the last few years, and they aren’t right for many people. So let’s look at when an accelerator is right for you.

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Waiting for China to Re-Open, From Huaqiangbei

The Chinese New Year is something we keep in mind at least half of the year, and probably still don’t plan for properly. In case you’re new to the situation: The Chinese New Year celebration empties out Shenzhen of its more than 12 million residents for the better part of a month. It’s the one time of year that manufacturing sector workers (and everyone that supports that ecosystem) travels home to visit family.

For those involved in manufacturing goods in Shenzhen, this part of the year leaves us cut off from one of our vices and we count the days until our tracking numbers and order confirmations start to show signs of life. It’s an inconvenience of an entirely different nature if you are one of the lonely few that stays in the city during the holiday. [Ian] over at Dangerous Prototypes wrote a blog post from his office in Huaqiangbei which is a sub-district of Shenzhen, China to share the experience with us.

Shenzhen is uniquely a migrant-worker city, and when emptied of the factory employees there are not enough people to patronize local services like markets and restaurants so they also shut down. But an empty city offers its own interesting entertainment like wicked fireworks sessions. As always, [Ian] does a great job of sharing this peculiar part of Shenzhen culture. He also kindly points out some of the offensive offers that come through the inter-webs from desperate customers who have poorly planned around the holiday.