One of the things you find yourself doing as a young engineer is equipping yourself with the tools of your trade. These will be the foundations upon which your career is built in a way that a diploma or degree certificate will never be, for the best degree in the world is less useful if the quality of your tools renders you unable to capitalise upon it. You may be lucky enough to make some of them yourself, but others you’ll lust after as unaffordable, then eventually put the boat out a little to buy at the limit of your meager income.
Your bench may have a few of these lifetime tools. They could be something as simple as screwdrivers or you may have one of those indestructible multimeters, but in my case my lifetime tool is my soldering iron. At some time in 1992 I spent about £60($173 back then), a lot of money for a student, on a mains-powered Weller Magnastat. The World Wide Web was still fairly fresh from Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT in those days, so this meant a trip to my university’s RS trade counter and a moment poring over a telephone-book-sized catalogue before filling in an order slip.
The Magnastat is a simple but very effective fixed-temperature-controlled iron. The tip has a magnet on its rear end which holds closed a power switch for the heating element. When the tip has heated to the Curie temperature of the magnet, it loses its magnetism and the switch opens. The temperature falls to below the Curie temperature and the magnetism returns, the switch closes, the tip warms up again, and the cycle repeats itself. The temperature of the tip is thus dictated by the magnet’s Curie temperature, and Weller provides a range of tips fitted with magnets for different temperatures.
The result is an iron with enough power to solder heat-sucking jobs that would leave lesser irons gasping for juice, while also having the delicacy to solder tiny surface-mount components without destroying them or lifting tracks. It’s not a particularly small or lightweight iron if you are used to the featherlight pencil irons from today’s soldering stations, but neither is it too large or heavy to be unwieldy. In the nearly quarter century I have owned my Magnastat it has had a hand in almost everything I have made, from hi-fi and tube amplifiers through radio transmitters, stripline filters, kits, and too many repairs to mention. It has even been pressed into service plastic-welding a damaged motorcycle fairing. It has truly been a lifetime tool.
[kodera]’s electronic sensing tweezers only measure capacitors, and for good reason: chip caps usually don’t have values printed on them. These tweezers don’t print out the value of a cap on a display, either. Instead, these tweezers just flash an LED if the value of the cap is above 0.1uF. It’s simple, but surprisingly useful for most soldering jobs.
The circuit for this pair of magical tweezers is about as simple as if can get, with all the smarts contained in a very small ATtiny10. The PCB [kodera] designed is smaller than the coin cell battery, and with the help of some copper tape and possibly an insulator, this device can be mounted to any pair of tweezers. It’s a simple tool, yes, but that’s the beauty of it, and makes for a great entry into the Hackaday Prize
[BF38] bought a mid-range miniature drill-press, and discovered that it was just too short for some of his applications. “No problem,” he thought, “I’ll just measure the column and swap it out for a longer one.” It sounds foolproof on paper.
He discovered, after having bought a new 48.3 mm steel column, that the original was 48 mm exactly in diameter. He’d have to make it fit. But how do you bore out a 48 mm diameter hole, keeping it perfectly round, and only increase the diameter by 0.3 mm? A file is out because you’d never get it round. A lathe is out because [BF38] doesn’t have a lathe.
[BF38] ended up making a DIY honing head, which is a gadget that presses (in this case) two pieces of sandpaper evenly against the sides of the hole to be widened. The head in question is a little bit rough — it was made as a learning project, but it looks like it served the purpose admirably.
The fact that you’re reading Hackaday puts you into one of three categories: you wish you had a lot more tools, you’re on the way to a well-stocked workshop, or you’re trying to pass on your shop surplus to someone who will love it like you do. There’s now a perfect solution for the buy-upgrade-horde cycle we all inevitably fall into: the Tindie Flea Market. If you use something to make hardware, this is going to be the place to buy or sell it.
Has that starter scope been collecting dust since you picked up not one, but two better models? We know you can’t part with it unless you know it’s not going to be thrown out, and this is the chance to find not just a good home, but an owner that will use and cherish it. This goes for all kinds of great tools. After all, how do you find someone to take that pick and place off of your hands?
At launch, the Tindie Flea Market categories will include Adapters and Cables, Audio and Video, Batteries and Power, Bulk Components, Equipment, Fasteners, RC, and Small Tools. Maybe I’ll finally be able to find a home for that tube of power transistors I ordered years ago in the wrong package — and maybe even that long tape of EEPROM that I ordered in 1.8v instead of 3.3v. Time to start my listings and keep good stuff out of the landfill. Yet another great reason we were so happy to welcome Tindie to the Hackaday family.
Cheap benchtop power supplies are generally regarded as pieces of junk around these parts. They can measure well enough under perfect conditions, but when you use them a little bit, they fall over. There’s proof of this in hundreds of EEVblog posts, Amazon reviews, and stories from people who have actually owned these el-cheapo power supplies.
One of the guys who has had a difficult time with these power supplies is [Richard]. He picked up a MPJA 9616PS (or Circuit Specialists CSI3003SM) for a song. It quickly broke, and that means it’s time for a repair video. [Richard] is doing this one better – he has the 3A power supply, that sells for $55. With a stupidly simple modification, he upgraded this power supply to the 5A model that usually sells for $100.
The problem with [Richard]’s broken power supply were voltage and current adjustments knobs. This cheap power supply didn’t use rotary encoders – voltage and current were controlled by a pair of 1k and 10k pots. Replacing these parts cost about $5, and [Richard]’s power supply was back up on its feet.
After poking around inside this power supply, [Richard] noticed two blue trim pots. These trim pots were cranked all the way to the left, and by cranking them all the way to the right, the power supply could output 5 Amps. Yes, the 3A version of this power supply was almost identical to the 5A version, with the only difference being the price. It’s a good repair to a somewhat crappy but serviceable supply, but a great mod that puts a beefier power supply on [Richard]’s desk.
A lot of people make the argument that you can’t go wrong buying a tool made in USA, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, etc. They swear that any Chinese tool will be garbage and it’s not worth purchasing them. Now, any discerning mind will say, “Wait a minute, why? China has a huge economy, experienced people, and the ability to use all the scary chemicals that make the best steel. Why would their tools be any better or worse than ours?” It’s a very valid argument. There are lots of Chinese tools that are the best in the world. Most of what we see in our stores are not. So what is the difference. Why does a country who can make the best tools not make the best tools? Surely it isn’t purely cost cutting. Is it cultural? The opinion I wish to put forth is that it’s a matter of design intent communication.
I’ve worked as an engineer in industry. The one common thread between a quality product and a bad product has always been this, ”Is the person who designed the product involved in making the product?” If the person or peoples who imbued the design intent into the original product are actively involved in and working towards the execution of that product, that product has a vastly greater chance of being good. Or in other words: outsourcing doesn’t produce a bad product because the new people making the product don’t care. It makes a bad product because the people who understand the intent behind the product are separated from its execution.
Let’s take the Crescent wrench as an example. Crescent wrenches used to be made in USA. In the past few years they have begun to make them in China. We can spot many visual differences right away. The new Crescent wrench has a different shape, the logo has changed and the stamping for the logo is dodgy, and worse, the tool just doesn’t operate as well as it used to. The jaws aren’t as hard and they wiggle more. What happened? How could Crescent mess up their flagship so badly. Surely they intended just to cut costs, not to reduce quality. This isn’t shameful in itself
What happened to the Crescent wrench is easily explained by anyone who has seen a product from design to execution before. A factory in the USA set out to make a good adjustable wrench. Hundreds of engineers and employees worked in a building to make a good wrench. When their machines didn’t work, they came up with solutions. When their quality was lacking, they implemented better processes. They had a list of trusted suppliers. They could guarantee that the materials that came in would be imbued with their vision and intent when the product came out. The intent and will of all those people built up in one place over time.
No doubt many of you have spent a happy Christmas tearing away layers of wrapping paper to expose some new gadget. But did you stop to spare a thought for the “sticky-back plastic” holding your precious gift paper together?
There are a crazy number of adhesive tapes available, and in this article I’d like to discuss a few of the ones I’ve found useful in my lab, and their sometimes surprising applications. I’d be interested in your own favorite tapes and adhesives too, so please comment below!
But first, I’d like to start with the tapes that I don’t use. Normal cellulose tape, while useful outside the lab, is less than ideally suited to most lab applications. The same goes for vinyl-based insulating tapes, which I find have a tendency to fall off leaving a messy sticky residue. When insulation is necessary, heatshrink seems to serve better.
The one tape I have in my lab which is similar to common cellulose tape however is Scotch Magic Tape. Scotch Magic tape, made from a cellulose acetate, and has a number of surprising properties. It’s often favored because of it’s matte finish. It can easily be written on and when taped to paper appears completely transparent. It’s also easy to tear/shape and remove. But for my purposes I’m more interested in it’s scientific applications.
Here’s a neat trick you can try at home. Take a roll of tape (I’ve tried this with Scotch Magic tape but other tapes may work too) to a dark room. Now start unrolling the tape and look at interface where the tape leaves the rest of the roll. You should see a dim blue illumination. The effect is quite striking and rather surprising. It’s called triboluminescence and has been observed since the 1950s in tapes and far earlier in other materials (even sugar when scraped in a dark room will apparently illuminate). The mechanism, however, is poorly understood.
It was perhaps this strange effect that led researchers to try unrolling tape in a vacuum. In 1953 a group of Russian researchers attempted this and bizarrely enough, were able to generate X-rays. Their results were unfortunately forgotten for many years, but were replicated in 2008 and even used to X-ray a researcher’s finger! As usual Ben Krasnow has an awesome video on the topic:
In my lab however I mostly use Scotch tape to remove surface layers. In certain experiments it’s valuable to have an atomically flat surface. Both Mica and HOPG (a kind of graphite) are composed of atomically flat layers. Scotch tape can be used to remove the upper layers leaving a clean flat surface for experimentation.
Researchers have also modified this technique to produce graphene. Graphene is composed of single carbon layers and has a number of amazing properties, highly conductive, incredibly strong, and transparent. For years producing small quantities of graphene provided difficult. But in 2004 a simple method was developed at the University of Manchester using nothing but bulk ordered graphite (HOPG) and a little Scotch tape. When repeatedly pressed between the Scotch tape, the Graphite layers can be separated until eventually only a signal layer of graphene remains.
The other non-conductive tape I use regularly in my lab is of course Kapton tape. While Kapton is a Dupoint brand name, it’s basically a polyimide film tape which is thermally stable up to 400 degrees C. This makes it ideal for work holding in electronics (or masking out pins) when soldering. You can also use it for insulating (though it’s inadvisable for production applications). Typically polyimide tape is available under a number of dubious synonyms (one example is Kaptan) from a variety of Chinese suppliers at low cost.
Carbon tape is conductive in all axes. This means it you can create a electrical connection by simply taping to your devices. It’s resistance however is somewhat high. I’ve most commonly come across this when using electron microscopes. Carbon tape is used both to keep a sample in place and create an electrical connection between the sample and the sample mount.
Other conducting tapes are available with lower resistance, creating a electrical connection without soldering is valuable in a number of situations. Particularly when heat might damage the device. One example of this is piezoelectric materials. Not only does solder often bond poorly to ceramic materials, but it may also depole the material removing its piezoelectric properties. I tend to use conductive epoxies in these situations, but conductive tapes appear to be an attractive option.
Aluminum tape is commonly used for (heat) insulation in homes. It’s therefore very cheap and easily available. As well as conducting heat aluminum tape of course also conducts electricity. Around the lab this can be pretty handy. While the adhesive is not conductive, making it less attractive for connection parts, I’ve found aluminum tape great of sealing up holes in shielded enclosures. It also makes a great accompaniment to aluminum foil which is used to provide ad-hoc shielding in many scientific environments. Copper tape is also easily obtained, though slightly more expensive.
A much less common, but far cooler conductive tape is so called Z tape. This tape is composed of regular double-sided tape impregnated with spaced conductors. The result is a tape that conducts in only one direction (from the top to the bottom). This makes it similar in structure to a zebra strip, commonly used to connect LCDs. Z tape is unfortunately pretty expensive, a short 100mm strip can cost 5 dollars. What exactly 3M had in mind when creating Z tape is unclear. But it can be used for repairing FPC connectors on LCDs or in other situations where soldering is impractical.
One of the more awesome applications is Jie and Bunnie’s circuit sticker project. The kits are designed to allow kids to assemble circuits simply by sticking components together. Z tape is ideal for this, as it allows multiple connections to be made using the same piece to tape.
I couldn’t write an article on tape without mentioning the somewhat apocryphal “Invisible Electrostatic Wall” incident. A report at the 17th Annual EOS/ESD Symposium describes a “force field” like wall that appeared during the production of polypropylene film. While the story seems slightly dubious, it reminds us of the surprising applications and utility of tapes.
Next time you’re sending off a package or ripping open a package, spare a thought for the humble tape that holds it together.