USB Soldering Iron is Surprisingly Capable

We know what you’re thinking. There’s no way an 8 watt USB-powered soldering iron could be worth the $5 it commands on eBay. That’s what [BigClive] thought too, so he bought one, put the iron through a test and teardown, and changed his mind. Can he convince you too?

Right up front, [BigClive] finds that the iron is probably not suitable for some jobs. Aside its obvious unsuitability for connections that take a lot of heat, there’s the problem of leakage current when used with a wall-wart USB power supply. The business end of the iron ends up getting enough AC leak through the capacitors of the power supply to potentially damage MOSFETs and the like. Then again, if you’re handy to an AC outlet, wouldn’t you just use a Hakko? Seems like the iron is best powered by a USB battery pack, and [BigClive] was able to solder some surprisingly beefy connections that way. The teardown and analysis reveal a circuit that looks like it came right out of a [Forrest M. Mims III] book. We won’t spoil the surprise for you – just watch the video below.

While not truly cordless like this USB-rechargeable iron, we’d say that for the price, this is a pretty capable iron for certain use cases. Has anyone else tried one of these? Chime in on the comments and let us know what you think.

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Robotic Vacuums Get Torn-down For Design Showdown.

Fictiv runs a 3D printing shop. They have a nice interface and an easy to understand pricing scheme. As community service, or just for fun, they decided to tear-down two robot vacuums and critique their construction while taking really nice pictures.

The first to go is the iRobot 650 model. For anyone who’s ever taken apart an iRobot product, you’ll be happy to know that it’s the same thousand-screws-and-bits-of-plastic ordeal that it always was. However, rather than continue their plague of the worst wire routing imaginable, they’ve switched to a hybrid of awfulness and a clever card edge system to connect the bits and pieces.

The other bot is the Neato XV-11. It has way fewer screws and plastic parts, and they even tear down the laser rangefinder module that’s captured many a hacker’s attention. The wire routing inside the Neato is very well done and nicely terminated in hard-to-confuse JST connectors. Every key failure point on the Neato, aside from the rangefinder, can be replaced without disassembling the whole robot. Interestingly, the wheels on both appear to be nearly identical.

In the end they rate the Neato a better robot, but the iRobot better engineered. Though this prize was given mostly for the cleverness of the card edge connectors.

Tearing Down an IP Camera

So you bring home a shiny new gadget. You plug it into your network, turn it on, and it does… well, whatever it wants. Hopefully, it does what you expect and no more, but there is no guarantee: it could be sending your network traffic to the NSA, MI5 or just the highest bidder. [Jelmer] decided to find out what a new IP camera did, and how easy it was to find out by taking a good poke around inside.

In his write-up of this teardown, he describes how he used Wireshark to see who the camera was talking to over the Interwebs, and how he was able to get root access to the device itself (spoilers: the root password was 1234546). He did this by using the serial interface of the Ralink RT3050 that is the brains of the camera to get in, which provided a nice console when he asked politely. A bit of poking around found the password file, which was all too easily decrypted with John the ripper.

This is basic stuff, but if you’ve never opened up an embedded Linux device and gotten root on it, you absolutely should. And now you’ve got a nicely written lesson in how to do it. Go poke around inside the things you own!

555 Teardown and Analysis

If you are even remotely interested in electronics, chances are the number ‘555’ is immediately recognizable. It is, after all, one of the most popular IC’s ever built, with billions of units sold to date. Designed way back in 1970 by Hans Camenzind, it is still widely available and frequently used for various applications. [Ken Shirriff] does a teardown and analysis of a 555 and gives us a look at the internal structure of this oldie.

A metal can package allowed him to just chop off the top and get access to the die, which was way safer and easier than to etch out the black epoxy of a DIP package. He starts by giving us a quick run down on how the chip works, showing us the two comparators, the output flip-flop and the capacitor discharge circuitry that make up most of the chip. He then puts the die under a metallurgical microscope, and starts identifying the various sections of the chip. Combining pictures of individual elements with cross-sectional diagrams, he identifies the construction of the transistors and resistors, the use of a current mirror to replace bulky resistors, and the differential pair that makes up the comparators.

He wraps it up by providing an interactive map of the die and the schematic, where you can click on various parts and the corresponding component is highlighted along with an explanation of what it does. There’s some interesting trivia about how a redesigned, improved version – the ZSCT1555 – couldn’t survive the popularity and success of the 555. He wraps it up with a useful list of notes and references. While de-capping blog posts are interesting on their own, [Ken] does a great job by giving us a detailed look at the internals.

Thanks [Vikas] for sending in this tip.

What Can We Learn From a Cheap Induction Cooktop?

Sometimes tearing down a cheap appliance is more interesting that tearing down an expensive one. A lot of the best engineering happens when cost is an issue. You may not solve the problem well, but you can solve it well enough for a discount shelf.

[openschemes] purchased a 1.8kW induction hot plate at a low price off Amazon. The reasons for the discount soon became apparent. The worst of which was a fully intolerable amount of high frequency switching noise. Wanting to know how it worked, he took it apart.

After he had it apart on his desk, he deciphered the circuit, and wrote about it clearly. As usual with extremely cheap electronics, some clever hacks were employed. The single micro-controller was used for monitoring, and generated a PWM signal that was instantly converted to DC through some filters. All the switching was done the old fashioned way, which explained why the hotplate seemed so brainless to [openschemes] when he first turned it on.

Lastly, he did some work on manually controlling the cooktop for whatever reason. The good news? He managed to figure out how to control it. Unfortunately he also destroyed his unit in the process, via a misapplication of 1200 volts. A fitting end, and we learned a lot!

Thanks [David Balfour] for the tip!

Sparkfun Tears Apart Power Supplies

We love a good tear-down, and last week’s “Enginursday” at Sparkfun satisfied our desire to see the insides of AC-DC switching power supplies, accompanied by knowledgeable commentary. [MTaylor] walks us through how the basic circuit works and then points out why various other elaborations are made, and how corners are sometimes cut, in a few power supplies that he’s taken apart.

lishin_bottomshieldedWhat struck us in the comparison was that some of the power supplies were very minimal designs, while others had “features” that were obviously added after the fact. For instance, the Li Shin supply (about half-way down the page) has an extra circuit board tacked on to the bottom of the real circuit board to act as EM shielding.

Rather than declare this a dodgy hack, as we would have, [MTaylor] declares it to be “Good News!” because it means that they’ve probably run an emissions test, failed it, and then added this bit on to make it pass. This is of course in contrast to the other makers who’ve probably never even considered emissions testing. Sigh.

If you’re interested in seeing more inner bits of power bricks, Sparkfun forum reader [sgrace] passed along this field guide to various power supplies, which is also worth a look. And if you’re interested in building yourself the ultimate bench power supply, look no further than this Hackaday.io project by [The Big One].

Belkin WeMo Teardown

[Brian Dipert] over at EDN has a teardown of Belkin’s answer to the Internet of Things (IoT) craze: the WeMo. This little WiFi gadget plugs into an outlet and lets you turn a connected device on and off from a smart phone app or something like Amazon Echo.

As you might expect from a cheap piece of consumer hardware, there’s not a whole lot inside. The digital board contains a Ralink WiFi chip, an antenna etched on the PCB, and a handful of components, including an SDRAM and some flash memory.

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