Super In-Depth $15 Curve Tracer Project

[Jason Jones] has always wanted a curve tracer for his home shop. When he was starting out in electronics he fell in love with a machine called a Huntron Tracker 2000. This machine would feed a sine wave into a circuit on one side and plot a XY graph on the other.

[Jason] figured that with a modern microcontroller such a device could be build simply and cheaply for around $15 dollars. With that requirement in mind he set out to build it. He selected a PIC24F16KM202 for the brain and got to work.

The write-up is really great. It’s rare that someone puts every step of their development and design thinking into writing. Some have argued that this is the only true way to have an OSHW hardware project. The series covers everything from the initial requirements and parts selection to the software development and eventual testing of the device.

[Jason] managed to build a pretty capable little curve tracer in the end. We really enjoyed it when he used the tracer to debug the tracer.

HALT In The Name Of Testing

“Did I forget something?” It’s that nagging feeling every engineer has when their project is about to be deployed – it may be a product about to be ramped into production, a low volume product, or even a one off like a microsatellite. If you have the time and a few prototypes to spare though, there are ways to alleviate these worries. The key is a test method which has been used in aerospace, military, and other industries for years – Highly Accelerated Life Testing (HALT).

How to HALT

The idea behind HALT testing can be summed up in a couple of sentences:

  • Beat your product to death.
  • Figure out what broke.
  • Fix it, and fix the design.
  • Repeat.

Sounds barbaric, and in many cases it is. HALT testing is often associated with giant test chambers which are literally designed to torture anything inside them. Liquid nitrogen shock cools the chamber as low as -100°C. The Device Under Test (DUT) can soak at that temperature for hours. Powerful heaters then blast the chamber, causing temperature rises of up to 90°C per minute, topping off at up to 200°C. Pneumatic hammers beat on the chamber table causing vibrations at up to 90 Grms and 10 KHz. Corrosive sprays simulate years of rain and humidity. These chambers are literally hell on earth for any device unlucky enough to be placed inside them. It’s easy to see why this sort of testing is often referred to as “Shake and Bake”.

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Is Your Cat 6 Ethernet Cable Cat 6? Probably Not.

Though we’ve never used their cables, [Blue Jeans Cable] out of Seattle, WA sure does seem to take the black art of cable manufacture seriously. When they read the Cat 6 specification, they knew they couldn’t just keep building the cables the way they used to. So they did some research and purchased a Fluke certification tester for a measly 12,000 US dollars. While they were purchasing the device, they ran across an interesting tidbit in the fluke knowledge base. Fluke said that 80% of the consumer Cat 6 cables they tested didn’t begin to meet the Cat 6 specification.

This is the part where [Blue Jeans Cable] earns our respect; like good scientists, they set out to replicate Fluke’s results. Sure enough, 80% of the Cat 6 cables they tested from big box stores etc. failed the specification. More surprising, many of them didn’t even pass the Cat 5e specification. [Blue Jeans Cable] asserts that this is possible because the Ethernet cable specification is policed via the honor system, allowing manufacturers to be fairly brazen about what they label as Cat 6.

The Mystery of the Boiled Batteries

While debugging a strange battery failure in a manufacturing process, [Josh] discovered a new (to us) LiPo battery failure mode.

Different battery chemistries react differently to temperature. We’ve used lithium exclusively in high-altitude ballooning, for instance, because of their decent performance when cold. Lithium batteries generally don’t like high temperatures, on the other hand, but besides the risk of bursting into flames, we had no idea that heat could kill them. When the battery’s voltage is already low, though, it turns out it can.

[Josh]’s process required molding plastic with the battery inside, and this meant heating the batteries up. After the fact, he noticed an unreasonably high failure rate in the batteries, and decided to test them out. He put the batteries, each in a different initial charge, into a plastic bag and tortured them all with ice and fire. (OK, boiling water.)

When the batteries got hot, their voltage sagged a little bit, but they recovered afterwards. And while the voltage sagged a little bit more for the batteries with lower initial charge, that’s nothing compared to the complete failure of the battery that entered the hot water with under 1V on it — see they yellow line in the graphs.

battery_voltages

There’s a million ways to kill a battery, and lithium batteries are known not to like being completely discharged, but it looks like the combination of deep discharge and heat is entirely deadly. Now you know.

Exploding Multimeter Battle Royale

If you check out eBay, Amazon, or the other kinda-shady online retailers out there, you’ll quickly find you can buy a CAT III (600V) rated multimeter for under $50. If you think about it, this is incredible. There’s a lot of engineering that needs to go into a meter that is able to measure junction boxes, and factories in China are pushing these things out for an amazing price.

Over on the EEVBlog, these meters are being pushed to the limits. Last month, [joeqsmith] started a thread testing the theory that these cheap meters can handle extremely high voltages. A proper CAT III test requires a surge of electrons with a 6kV peak and a 2 ohm source. With a bunch of caps, bailing wire, JB Weld and zip ties, anyone can test if these meters are rated at what they say they are. Get a few people on the EEVBlog sending [joeqsmith] some cheapo meters, and you can have some real fun figuring out how these meters stack up.

The real experiments began with [joe smith]’s low energy surge generator, a beast of a machine that can be measured with an even beastlier high voltage scope probe. This is a machine that will send a voltage spike through anything to short out traces on poorly designed multimeters.

How did the cheapo meters fare? Not well, for the most part. There was, however, one exception: the Fluke 101. This is Fluke’s My First Multimeter, stuffed into a pocketable package. This meter is able to survive 12kV pulses when all but two of the other brands of meters would fail at 3kV.

What’s the secret to Fluke’s success? You only need to look at what the Fluke 101 can’t do. Fluke’s budget meter doesn’t measure current. If you ever look inside a meter, you’ll usually find two fuses, one for measuring Amps and the other for all the other functions on the scope. There’s quite a bit of engineering that goes into the current measurement of a meter, and when it goes wrong you have a bomb on your hands. Fluke engineers rather intelligently dropped current measurement from this budget meter, allowing them to save that much on their BOM.

There’s an impressive amount of data collected by [joeqsmith] and the other contributors in this thread, but don’t use this to decide on your next budget meter; This is more of an interesting discovery of how to make a product that meets specs: just cut out what can’t be done with the given budget.

Wind Tunnel Testing Now Available To The Common Man

DIY Wind Tunnel

If you are in the market for a DIY wind tunnel the folks over at sciencebuddies.org have got you covered. They have done a great job documenting how they built their own wind tunnel. Most of the structure is made of plywood with the test chamber is made of plexi-glass so that the operator can visually observe what is happening during a test. A common gable-mount fan provides the air flow, you may have one installed in your attic to keep it cool. The only non-widely available components are the force sensors that feed data to a computer for logging.

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Introducing: Hackaday Projects

Today Hackaday is launching a new site that furthers our goal of being a Virtual Hackerspace. Now you can host your own hacks and builds in a place truly worthy of what we’re all about. We present to you: Hackaday Projects.

What’s so great about it? It has a dark theme, just like the blog! Actually, the awesome of the new site is a combination of what’s already available and what we have planned. First and foremost, the site has been built from the ground up with open data in mind. This means you own what you create on Hackaday Projects. You can export your work, delete it, and use a public API to extend the usefulness of the data. Secondly, we have a range of different tools which are extremely easy and quick to use, but allow rich styling and presentation when you need it. Want to see what we mean? Go check out the NFC Voting Rig that was at The Gathering.

Where do we go from here? A huge part of that is up to you. We need Hackaday readers to get in there and tell us what works, what doesn’t work, and what needs to be added. Are you up to the task? Request your alpha testing invite now and guide Hackaday Projects to be the hosting site the Hackaday community has always dreamed about!