The Little Things I Didn’t Know About Small DC Motors

We’ve all taken apart a small toy and pulled out one of those little can motors. “With this! I can do anything!” we proclaim as we hold it aloft. Ten minutes later, after we’ve made it spin a few times, it goes into the drawer never to be seen again.

It’s all their fault

It always seems like they are in everything but getting them to function usefully in a project is a fool’s errand. What the heck are they for? Where do people learn the black magic needed to make them function? It’s easy enough to pull out the specification sheet for them. Most of them are made by or are made to imitate motors from the Mabuchi Motor Corporation of Japan. That company alone is responsible for over 1.5 billion tiny motors a year.

More than Just the Specs

In the specs, you’ll find things like running speed, voltage, stall current, and stall torque. But they offer anything but a convincing application guide, or a basic set of assumptions an engineer should make before using one. This is by no means a complete list, and a skip over the electrics nearly completely as that aspect of DC motors in unreasonably well documented.

The paint mixers high running speed and infrequent use make it a decent candidate for hooking directly to the motor.
The paint mixers high running speed and infrequent use make it a decent candidate for hooking directly to the motor.

The first thing to note is that they really aren’t meant to drive anything directly. They are meant to be isolated from the actual driving by a gear train. This is for a lot of reasons. The first is that they typically spin very fast, 6,000 – 15,000 rpm is not atypical for even the tiniest motor. So even though the datasheet may throw out something impressive like it being a 3 watt motor, it’s not exactly true. Rather, it’s 3 N*m/s per 15,000 rotations per minute motor. Or a mere 1.2 milliwatt per rotation, which is an odd sort of unit that I’m just using for demonstration, but it gives you the feeling that there’s not a ton of “oomph” available. However, if you start to combine lots of rotations together using a gear train, you can start to get some real power out of it, even with the friction losses.

The only consumer items I can think of that regularly break this rule are very cheap children’s toys, which aren’t designed to last long anyway, and those powered erasers and coffee stirrers. Both of these are taking for granted that their torque needs are low and their speed needs are high, or that the motor burning out is no real loss for the world (at least in the short term).

This is because the motors derate nearly instantly. Most of these motors are hundreds of loops of very thin enameled wire wrapped around some silicon steel plates spot welded or otherwise coerced together. This means that even a small heat event of a few milliseconds could be enough to burn through the 10 micrometer thick coating insulating the coils from each other. Practically speaking, if you stall a little motor a few times in a row you might as well throw it away, because there’s no guessing what its actual performance rating is anymore. Likewise, consistently difficult start-ups, over voltage, over current, and other abuse can quickly ruin the motor. Because the energy it produces is meant to spread over lots of rotations, the motor is simply not designed (nor could it be reasonably built) to produce it all in one dramatic push.

Making Contact

Pololu has the clearest picture of the different kind of brushes inside these small motors.
Pololu has the clearest picture of the different kind of brushes inside these small motors.

This brings me to another small note about these tiny motors. Most of them don’t have the carbon brushes one begins to expect from the more powerful motors. Mostly they have a strip of copper that’s been stamped to have a few fingers pressing against the commutator. There’s lots of pros to these metal contacts and it’s not all cost cutting, but unless you have managed to read “Electrical Contacts” by Ragnar Holm and actually understood it, they’re hard to explain. There’s all sorts of magic. For example, just forming the right kind of oxide film on the surface of the commutator is a battle all on its own.

It’s a weird trade off. You can make the motor cheaper with the metal contacts, for one. Metal contacts also have much lower friction than carbon or graphite brushes. They’re quieter, and they also transfer less current, which may seem like a bad thing, but if you have a stalled motor with hairlike strands transferring the pixies around the last thing you’d want to do is transfer as much current as possible through them. However, a paper thin sheet of copper is not going to last very long either.

So it comes down to this, at least as I understand it: if bursts of very fast, low energy, high efficiency motion is all that’s required of the motor over its operational life then the metal strip brushes are perfect. If you need to run the motor for a long stretches at a time and noise isn’t an issue then the carbon brush version will work, just don’t stall it. It will cost a little bit more.

Take Care of Your Tiny Motors

Here is one of these can motors being restrained properly. Only torque on the case itself is restrained. The motor is otherwise free to move.
Here is one of these motors being restrained properly. Only torque on the case is restrained. The motor is otherwise free to move.

To touch one other small mechanical consideration. They are not designed to take any axial load at all, or really even any radial load either. Most of them have a plastic or aluminum bronze bushing, press-fit into a simple stamped steel body. So if you design a gearbox for one of these be sure to put as little force as possible on the bearing surfaces. If you’ve ever taken apart a small toy you’ve likely noticed that the motor can slide back and forth a bit in its mounting. This is why.

Lastly, because most of these motors are just not intended to run anywhere near their written maximum specifications it is best to assume that their specifications are a well intentioned but complete lie. Most designs work with the bottom 25% of the max number written on the spreadsheet. Running the motor anywhere near the top is usually guaranteed to brick it over time.

These are useful and ubiquitous motors, but unlike their more powerful cousins they have their own set of challenges to work with. However, considering you can buy them by the pound for cheaper than candy, there’s a good reason to get familiar with them.

Creating A PCB In Everything: Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Fritzing

This week, we’re continuing our Creating A PCB In Everything series, where we go through the steps to create a simple, barebones PCB in different EDA suites. We’re done with Eagle, and now it’s time to move onto Fritzing.

fritzing-logoFritzing came out of the Interaction Design Lab at the University of Applied Sciences of Potsdam in 2007 as a project initiated by Professor Reto Wettach, André Knörig and Zach Eveland. It is frequently compared to Processing, Wiring, or Arduino in that it provides an easy way for artists, creatives, or ‘makers’ to dip their toes into the waters of PCB design.

I feel it is necessary to contextualize Fritzing in the space of ‘maker movement’, DIY electronics, and the last decade of Hackaday. Simply by virtue of being an editor for Hackaday, I have seen thousands of homebrew PCBs, and tens of thousands of amateur and hobbyist electronics projects. Despite what the Fritzing’s Wikipedia talk page claims, Fritzing is an important piece of software. The story of the ‘maker movement’ – however ill-defined that phrase is – cannot be told without mentioning Fritzing. It was the inspiration for CircuitLab, and the Fritzing influence can easily be seen in Autodesk’s 123D Circuits.

Just because a piece of software is important doesn’t mean it’s good. I am, perhaps, the world’s leading expert at assessing poorly designed and just plain shitty PCBs. You may scoff at this, but think about it: simply due to my vocation, I look at a lot of PCBs made by amateurs. EE professors, TAs, or Chris Gammell might beat me on volume, but they’re only looking at boards made by students using one tool. I see amateur boards built in every tool, and without exception, the worst are always designed in Fritzing. It should be unacceptable that I can even tell they’re designed in Fritzing.

Fritzing has its place, and that place is building graphical representations for breadboard circuits. Fritzing has no other equal in this respect, and for this purpose, it’s an excellent tool. You can also make a PCB in Fritzing, and here things aren’t as great. I want to do Fritzing for this Creating A PCB In Everything series only to demonstrate how bad PCB design can be.

For the next few thousand words, I am going to combine a tutorial for Fritzing with a review of Fritzing. Fritzing is an important piece of software, if only for being a great way to create graphics of breadboard circuits. As a PCB design tool, it’s lacking; creating parts from scratch is far too hard, and there’s no way to get around the grid snap tool. No one should ever be forced to create a PCB in Fritzing, but it does have its own very limited place.

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Life On Contract: How To Have a Meeting

Meetings can actually be useful. It’s hard to believe, but they can actually save time if done right. While most of us are in a perpetual state of torture by Kevin in marketing holding another three-hour meeting during lunch hours, there are a few of us who know their hidden power when put in the right hands.

Working as a contractor, wasted meetings mean wasted billable hours. Even wasted meeting time is covered in the cost of the contract it runs the risk of giving the client the impression that you’re not as productive as originally thought. Organized, productive meetings show that you know what you’re doing and that the cost of your services as a whole is a good value. Yeah, some meetings suck but they are necessary and should be productive.

A meeting needs three things to be worth the time spent on it.

  1. A well prepared for, simple, and clear agenda.
  2. A time limit.
  3. Something needs to be written down at the end of it.

I’ll start with the third item as it shapes the rest. The point of a meeting is to have something to write down at the end of the meeting. Any meeting that ends up in anything requiring fallible human memory was a waste of everyone’s time. This includes, verbal agreements, handshake agreements, ideating (pronounced idioting), brainstorming, think tanking, and the like.

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Creating A PCB In Everything: Eagle DRC and Gerber Files

For the next post in the Creating A PCB series, we’re going to continue our explorations of Eagle. In Part 1,  I went over how to create a part from scratch in Eagle. In Part 2, we used this part to create the small example board from the Introduction.

This time around I’ll be going over Design Rule Check (DRC) — or making sure your board house can actually fabricate what you’ve designed. I’ll also be covering the creation of Gerber files (so you can get the PCB fabbed anywhere you want), and putting real art into the silkscreen and soldermask layers of your boards.

The idea behind this series is to explore different EDA suites and PCB design tools by designing the same circuit in each. You can check out the rest of the posts in this series right here.

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Creating A PCB In Everything: Eagle, Part 2

In the last (and first) post in this series, we took a look at Eagle. Specifically, we learned how to create a custom part in Eagle. Our goal isn’t just to make our own parts in Eagle, we want to make schematics, boards, and eventually solder a few PCBs.

The board we’ll be making, like all of the boards made in this Creating A PCB In Everything series, is the Nanite Wesley, a small USB development platform based on the ATtiny85. This board has less than a dozen parts, most of which are through-hole. This is the simplest PCB I can imagine that has sufficient complexity to demonstrate how to make a board.

With that said, let’s get onto the second part of our Eagle tutorial and lay out our circuit board.

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Creating A PCB in Everything: Eagle, Part 1

For the first in a series of posts describing how to make a PCB, we’re going with Eagle. Eagle CAD has been around since the days of DOS, and has received numerous updates over the years. Until KiCad started getting good a few years ago, Eagle CAD was the de facto standard PCB design software for hobbyist projects. Sparkfun uses it, Adafruit uses it, and Dangerous Prototypes uses it. The reason for Eagle’s dominance in a market where people don’t want to pay for software is the free, non-commercial and educational licenses. These free licenses give you the ability to build a board big enough and complex enough for 90% of hobbyist projects.

Of course, it should be mentioned that Eagle was recently acquired by Autodesk. The free licenses will remain, and right now, it seems obvious Eagle will become Autodesk’s pro-level circuit and board design software.

Personally, I learned PCB design on Eagle. After a few years, I quickly learned how limited even the professional version of Eagle was. At that point, the only option was to learn KiCad. Now that Eagle is in the hands of Autodesk, and I am very confident Eagle is about to get really, really good, I no longer have the desire to learn KiCad.

With the introduction out of the way, let’s get down to making a PCB in Eagle.

Continue reading “Creating A PCB in Everything: Eagle, Part 1”

Creating A PCB In Everything: Introduction

engineering-drawingA few years ago, I wrote a few columns titled Making A Thing. These columns were a tutorial of sorts for several different 3D modeling programs. This column wasn’t meant to be a complete guide to modeling an object in OpenSCAD or SolidWorks, it was just step-by-step instructions on how to make one specific thing with one specific piece of software.

More than a few people in the Hackaday community found this column useful or at the very least an interesting pedagogical device. When starting out with any kind of productivity software, you don’t need to know how to do everything, you just need to know how to do the most common tasks.

Since the Making A Thing column was so popular, I felt it was time to revive this idea with another design task we often face. As you have already guessed, we’re going to be making printed circuit boards. Continuing the unique tutorial format created in the previous iteration of this column, Making a PCB will build one specific circuit in multiple EDA suites.

The Circuit

The entire concept of demonstrating how to build one thing in a specific software package necessitates a model thing. Before I even begin writing the first Making A PCB column, I need to design something that’s sufficiently complex but still relatively simple, and something that’s hopefully somewhat useful. Breakout boards are extremely simple, perhaps too much. In the course of these programs, I’ll need to demonstrate how to make a part in each specific software suite, so fewer pins are better.

Lacking any creativity of my own, I’ve settled on a very small ATtiny85 Arduino derivative from Tim a.k.a. [cpldcpu]. Tim’s Nanite 85 is an exceptionally small Arduino-compatible board based on the ATtiny85, complete with a USB port, LED, and a few pins of I/O. It’s simple but sufficiently complex to give an introduction to a PCB design suite.

I’m not going to outright copy Tim’s Nanite 85, though. It’s much clearer if parts aren’t stacked on top of each other, and I’d like to give myself a little breathing room on the layout. I’ve redesigned the circuit of the Nanite 85 to use mostly through-hole parts on a slightly larger board. I’m calling my version the Nanite Wesley, and if you get that reference, thumbs up for you.

The schematic for the Nanite Wesley
The Nanite Wesley board. Copper pours not shown

Is this how a board should be laid out? No, absolutely not. I could probably do this as a single-layer board. This is a very inefficient layout, and I like rounded corners on my boards. It’s good enough, though, and it works. This is meant to be a tutorial on how to use a PCB design package, not a tutorial on how to design a PCB. Your criticisms in this regard are noted and ignored.

What These Tutorials Will Consist Of

You cannot use a PCB design package until you know how to make a part. Yes, Eagle has wonderful libraries for almost everything you can imagine, KiCad has plenty of parts on the Internet, and if you’re using a cloud-based PCB software, almost everything will be provided for you. If you make a PCB, eventually you’ll have to make your own part, though, and each tutorial will begin with making a DIP-8 ATtiny85. Everything else on this board is a jellybean part. Either way, the process of making a part and package for a Zener is the same as making one for a microcontroller.

The next part of the tutorial will consist of schematic capture. This means placing the parts in the schematic, drawing wires between the pins and pads, and naming them. From there, it’s time to actually make a board, and this means dropping the parts down, putting traces between all the pins, doing the board outline, pouring copper, and mechanical considerations.

With the schematic and board designed, it will be time to send it off to a fab house. For Eagle and KiCad, this is easy; OSHpark accepts Eagle .brd and KiCad .pcb files, but this is cheating. We’re going to use CAM to generate real Gerber files. If you make enough PCBs, you’ll have to learn it eventually.

Caveats and Poor Design

There are a lot of things that go into making a ‘proper’ PCB, including isolation, direct traces to decoupling capacitors, making sure pixies don’t go around sharp corners and a thousand other items that won’t be discussed in these tutorials. There’s a reason I won’t be discussing this. This is a guide on how to use a PCB design tool, not how to design a PCB.

What else should I do?

As you can probably guess from the schematic above, the first PCB software I’m going to cover is Eagle. KiCad is on the list, as is Fritzing, Altium CircuitMaker, and OrCAD. In the interests of putting PCB design in a historical context, I have a copy of AutoTRAX and an old DOS machine. I’ll also be covering a few of the cloud-only design tools such as Upverter.

That’s enough software suites to get started, but as with the Making A Thing series, I’m going to be looking for suggestions from the peanut gallery. I can’t change the circuit I’m making, as that’s the entire point of this series, but I am looking for suggestions on other tools to cover. What else can I do? Want me to grab a piece of copper clad board, sticker overlays, and some photostatic film? I can do that. Are you at a web-based EDA startup, and want some free advertising? Leave a note in the comments.

Thanks to our efforts to slowly improve the backend of Hackaday, you’ll be able to access all the Making A PCB In Everything posts from the series list below.