One Soldering Controller To Rule Them All

If your favourite programming language is solder, they you’ve surely worked your way through a bunch of irons and controllers over your hacker existence. It’s also likely you couldn’t pick one single favourite and ended up with a bunch of them crowding your desk. It would be handy to have one controller to rule them all. That’s just what [sparkybg] set out to do by building his Really Universal Soldering Controller. His intent was to design a controller capable of driving any kind of low voltage soldering iron which used either an in-line or separate temperature sensor (either thermocouple or resistive PTC).

This project has really caught on. [sparkybg] announced his build about two years back and since then many others have started posting details of their own Unisolder 5.2 builds. [zed65] built the version seen to the right and [SZ64] assembled the boards shown at the top of this article.

The controller has been proven to work successfully with Iron handles from Hakko, Pace, JBC, Weller, Ersa, as well as several Chinese makes. Getting the controller to identify one of the supported 625 types of iron profiles consists of connecting two close tolerance resistors across the relevant pins on the 9-pin shell connector. This is a brilliant solution to help identify a large variety of different types of irons with simple hardware. In the unlikely situation where you have a really vague, unsupported model, then creating your own custom profile is quite straightforward. The design is highly discrete with an all analog front end and a PIC32 doing all the digital heavy lifting.

To get an idea of the complexity of his task, here is what [sparkybg] needs to do:

“I have around 200 microseconds to stop the power, wait for the TC voltage to come to its real value, connect the amplifier to this voltage, wait for the amplifier to set its output to what I want to read, take the measurement from the ADC, disconnect the amplifier from the TC, run the PID, and eventually turn the power back on. The millivolts to temperature calculation is done using polynomial with 10 members. It does this calculation using 32bit mantissa floating point numbers and completes it in around 20 microseconds. The whole wave shaping, temperature calculation, PID and so on is completed in around 50-60 microseconds. RMS current, voltage and power calculations are done in around 100 microseconds. All this is done between the half periods of the mains voltage, where the voltage is less than around 3 volts.”

The forum is already over 800 posts deep, but you can start by grabbing the all important schematic PDF’s, Gerbers, BoM and firmware files conveniently linked in the first post to build your own Unisolder5.2 controller. This Universal Controller is a follow up to his earlier project for a Hakko T12/T15 specific controller which gave him a lot of insight in to designing the universal version.

[sparkybg] has posted several videos showing the UniSolder5.2 controlling several types of Irons. In the video after the break, he demonstrates it controlling a Weller WSP80.

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What the Flux: How Does Solder Work Anyway?

I’ve been soldering for a long time, and I take pride in my abilities. I won’t say that I’m the best solder-slinger around, but I’m pretty good at this essential shop skill — at least for through-hole and “traditional” soldering; I haven’t had much practice at SMD stuff yet. I’m confident that I could make a good, strong, stable joint that’s both electrically and mechanically sound in just about any kind of wire or conductor.

But like some many of us, I learned soldering as a practical skill; put solder and iron together, observe results, repeat the stuff that works and avoid the stuff that doesn’t. Seems like adding a little inside information might help me improve my skills, so I set about learning what’s going on mechanically and chemically inside a solder joint.

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Iron Tips: Soldering Headphones and Enamel Wire

We’ve all had that treasured pair of headphones fail us. One moment we’re jamming out to our favorite song, then, betrayal. The right ear goes out. No wait. It’s back. No, damn, it’s gone. It works for a while and then no jiggling of the wire will bring it back. So we think to ourselves, we’ve soldered before. This is nothing. We’ll just splice the wire together.

So we open it up only to be faced with the worst imaginable configuration: little strands of copper enamel wire intertwined with nylon for some reason. How does a mortal solder this? First you try to untwine the nylon from the strands. It kind of works, but now the strands are all mangled and weird. Huh. Okay. well, you kind of twist them together and give a go at soldering. No dice. Next comes sandpaper, torches, and all sorts of work-a-rounds. None of them seem to work. The best you manage is sound in one ear. It’s time to give up.

Soldering this stuff is actually pretty easy. It just takes a bit of knowledge about how assembly line workers do it. Let’s take a look.

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Hackerspace Takes Fume Extraction Seriously

At first we laughed at the ridiculously over-the-top fume extraction system this hackerspace built for itself. Then we thought about seriously questionable donation rolls of solder some of the members managed to find and bring in. The kind of roll where the local greybeard assures you that a Californian State Trooper has permission to shoot you if you try to take it into the state, but damn does it solder well. They may be onto something is all we’re saying. But on a serious note, for a communal space like this one, a great air quality plan makes the place a lot more pleasant, if not safer at the same time.

The build uses a regular boost fan for its main suction and pulls the fumes out to a place the members aren’t. Knowing hackerspaces that could be anything from an empty alley to vents on the building’s roof. It’s actually an interesting challenge to solve in a rented space (please share your own solutions for “daylighting” to the outside in the comments).

The frame is made from ducting and dryer hose. Since there aren’t really fittings for this. Most of the joints were designed in OpenSCAD and 3D printed. At each end of the tube a computer fan provides another little boost of airflow. We like the stands to position each end of the hose at the fume source. All of it is powered by a distribution box of their own making with the juice being fed with repurposed Ethernet cables to the fans at the ends of the hose.

It’s a nice build and likely extended the life of a few of the more electronically active members in the space. Especially if the retired radio enthusiasts decide to do their fifty year anniversary garage cleaning and gift upon the space their findings.

Tools of the Trade – Through Hole Assembly

In our last installment of Tools of the Trade, we had just finished doing the inspection of the surface mount part of the PCB. Next in the process is the through hole components. Depending on the PCB, the order may change slightly, but generally it makes more sense to get all the SMT work done before moving to the through hole work.

Through hole used to be the standard, but as the need for size reduction and automation increased, SMT gained favor. However, there are still a lot of reasons to use through hole components, so they aren’t going away entirely (at least not any time soon). One of the biggest advantages of THT is mechanical strength, which makes it better suited for connectors than SMT. If you’ve ever popped a microusb connector off a PCB by breathing on it heavily, you’ll understand. So, how do we most efficiently get through hole components on a PCB, and how do the big boys do it?

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Ask Hackaday: How Hard Is It To Make A Bad Solder Joint?

When you learn to solder, you are warned about the pitfalls of creating a solder joint. Too much solder, too little solder, cold joints, dry joints, failing to “wet” the joint properly, a plethora of terms are explained  if you read one of the many online guides to soldering.

Unsurprisingly it can all seem rather daunting to a novice, especially if they are not used to the dexterity required to manipulate a tool on a very small-scale at a distance. And since the soldering iron likely to be in the hands of a beginner will not be one of the more accomplished models with fine temperature control and a good tip, it’s likely that they will experience most of those pitfalls early on in their soldering career.

As your soldering skills increase, you get the knack of making a good joint. Applying just the right amount of heat and supplying just enough solder becomes second nature, and though you still mess up from time to time you learn to spot your errors and how to rework and fix them. Your progression through the art becomes a series of plateaux, as you achieve each new task whose tiny size or complexity you previously thought rendered it impossible. Did you too recoil in horror before your first 0.1″ DIP IC, only to find it had been surprisingly easy once you’d completed it?

A few weeks ago we posted a Hackaday Fail of the Week, revolving around a soldering iron failure and confirmation bias leading to a lengthy reworking session when the real culprit was a missing set of jumpers. Mildly embarrassing and something over which a veil is best drawn, but its comments raised some interesting questions about bad solder joints. In the FoTW case I was worried I’d overheated the joints causing them to go bad, evaporating the flux and oxidising the solder. This was disputed by some commenters, but left me with some curiosity over bad solder joints. We all know roughly how solder joints go wrong, but how much of what we know is heresay? Perhaps it is time for a thorough investigation of what makes a good solder joint, and the best way to understand that would surely be to look at what makes a bad one.

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“I Can Reflow” Merit Badge

[Nick Sayer] can reflow, and he can prove it. He designed a simple blinking-LED circuit that uses SMD parts to, well, blink LEDs. That’s not the point, though. It’s designed to be a test platform for reflow soldering, and to use a minimum number of valuable parts. Plus, it says “I can reflow!” in exposed copper. What else do you want?

OK, as far as “proving it” goes, the badge isn’t 100% reliable — we hand-solder 0805 components all day long. But still, if you want to try your hand at reflowing a circuit board, and you don’t want to ruin a lot of expensive parts if you fail, something like this is a good idea.

The design is open, and it’s really the idea that’s the point here anyway. How about something that would be really onerous to hand-solder, but still cheap? We’re thinking a matrix of tiny LEDs and a shift register or something.

We just ran an article on a hand-soldering challenge board, this seems the perfect complement. Display both proudly on your desk and confound and amaze your coworkers!