Fail Of The Week: When the Epoxy-Coated Chip Is Conductive

Every once in a while, you’ll find some weirdness that will send your head spinning. Most of the time you’ll chalk it up to a bad solder joint, some bad code, or just your own failings. This time it’s different. This is a story of weirdness that’s due entirely to a pin that shouldn’t be there. This is a package for an integrated circuit that has a pin zero.

The story begins with [Erich] building a few development boards for the Freescale Kinetis K20 FPGA. This is a USB-enabled microcontroller, and by all accounts, a worthwhile effort. So far, so good. The problem with the prototype boards was soon apparent. On some of the boards, the external 32 kHz oscillator was not starting. Resoldering the oscillator or microcontroller sometimes solved the problem, but not always. This is troubling, because that means the issue isn’t code, and it’s not the PCB. This is going to take a deep dive and a good inspection microscope.

One of [Erich]’s friends, [Christian B] somehow found the problem. When the Freescale K40 is manufactured, the die is carefully laid in a chip carrier and coated with epoxy, putting it in a small QFN package. The problem is, there’s an extra connection sticking out of one corner of this chip. This is just an artifact of the chip carrier, but if you leave exposed metal connected to ground, something is eventually going to go wrong.

The best guess [Erich] has is that this additional connection is from the manufacturing and packaging process, with the exposed metal pad in this application being bridged to an adjacent pad. Now, if there’s one failure to [Erich]’s design, it’s that the trace comes out of the pin on the adjacent pad at 90 degrees; this isn’t a best practice, but most of the time you can get away with it. This time, though, somebody got burned.

We don’t know how [Christian] ever found this issue. When you look at a tiny QFN package, you don’t expect there to be an extra pin attached to ground that can be easily bridged with a bit of solder paste. It’s either a lot of luck or skill to find this problem, but it’s a great example of the weird things you have to look out for.

The Lost Art Of Steam Heating

We got pointed by [packrat] to a 2015 presentation by [Dan Holohan] on the history and art of steam heating systems. At the advent of central heating systems for entire buildings, steam was used instead of water or air for the transport medium. These systems were installed in landmark buildings including the Empire State Building, which still use them to this day.

A major advantage of steam-based heating system is that no pump is required: the steam will naturally rise up through the piping, condenses and returns to the origin. This can be implemented as a single pipe where condensation returns through the same pipe as the steam, or a two-pipe system where the condensate returns through its own pipe.

In the presentation, Dan walks us through his experiences working on many of these steam heating systems in major US buildings, the types of systems, fixes implemented by engineers long since dead and the particularities of maintaining these systems.

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Hackaday Links: November 18, 2018

The greatest bit of consumer electronics is shipping and the reviews are out: Amazon’s Alexa-enabled microwave is a capable microwave, but befuddling to the voice-controlled-everything neophyte. Voice controlled everything is the last hope we have for technological innovation; it’s the last gasp of the consumer electronics industry. This is Amazon’s first thing with a built-in voice assistant, and while this is a marginally capable microwave at only 700 Watts — fine for a college dorm, but it’s generally worth shelling out a bit more cash for a 1000 Watt unit — the controls are befuddling. The first iteration is always hard, and we’re looking forward to the Amazon Alexa-enabled toaster, toothbrush, vacuum cleaner, and Bezos shrine.

Need a laser cutter, like crowdfunding campaigns, and know literally nothing about laser cutters? Have we got something for you. The Etcher Laser crowdfunding campaign has been pinging my email non-stop, and they’ve got something remarkable: a diode laser cutter engraver for $500. It comes in a neat-looking enclosure, so it’s sure to raise a lot of money.

A while back [Paulusjacobus] released an Arduino-based CNC controller for K40 laser cutters. There were a few suggestions to upgrade this to the STM32, so now this CNC controller is running on a Blue Pill. Yes, it’s great and there’s more floating points and such and such, so now this project is a Kickstarter project. Need a CNC controller based on the STM32? Boom, you’re done. It’s also named the ‘Super Gerbil’, which is an awesome name for something that is effectively a GRBL controller. Naming things is the hardest problem in computer science, after all.

The Gigatron computer is a ‘home computer’ without a microprocessor or microcontroller. How does it do this? A metric butt-load of ROM and look-up tables. This is cool and all, but now the Gigatron logo is huge. we’re talking 18 μm by 24 μm. This was done by etching a silicon test wafer with electron beam lithography.

Fail of the Week: Laser-based Persistence of Vision Gadget

[XTronical]’s idea for a laser-based persistence of vision gadget failed, but the basic idea seemed sound. A row of inexpensive red lasers shine into a spinning mirror and are reflected onto a distant surface, making 8 scan lines. A reflective object sensor detects mirror position, and by rapidly turning individual lasers on and off, a pattern can be drawn out.

That was the idea, anyway. A quick prototype consisting of some small and economical red laser diodes and a double-sided mirror hot glued to the shaft of a small DC motor formed the guts of the unit. [XTronical] worried that the spinning mirror might be unstable or unreliable, but that part performed just fine. The problems, he found, were mainly with the lasers.

[XTronical] had hoped to turn the lasers on and off directly via the digital I/O pins of an Arduino, but here’s where a lot of little issues sank the project. First of all, hot glue was handy for mounting but the lasers were cumbersome to align by hand, and the hot glue made it troublesome to effect repairs when units failed. In addition, the beams had inconsistent brightness and spot sizes, which made for poor visuals. [XTronical]’s approach of controlling the lasers by applying and cutting power may also have been a source of trouble. It’s possible that these lasers cannot turn on and off fast enough, but it’s hard to say without measuring.

Sensible ideas can be rendered unworkable by an accumulation of small problems, and that seems to have been the case here. A video overview is embedded below; is this approach doomed, or can it be made workable?

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The (UV) Writing’s On The Wall

[Michael Karliner]’s Belshazzar, named for the Biblical character upon whose wall the writing appeared, is a unique light painting machine, that tracks an array of UV LEDs across a glow-in-the-dark background to paint transient dot-matrix letters in light. It was one of many cyberpunk-themed art pieces in Null Sector at the 2018 Electromagnetic Field hacker camp this summer.

The row of LEDs hangs down from a carriage that traverses a tubular rail, and is edged forward by means of a stepper motor driving a roller. This arrangement delivers the benefit that it can be scaled for displays of any length. The LEDs are driven from an Arduino via a Texas Instruments TLC5940 PWM driver ship.The result can be seen in the video below the break, and those who saw it at EMF may remember it tracing suitably dystopian phrases.

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Self-Powered Sun Tracker Takes a Cue from NASA Solar Probe

Getting a solar array to track the sun has always been an interesting problem, and it has led to some complicated solutions. Controllers that use GPS and servos seem to be much in favor these days, but as this NASA-inspired sun tracker shows, the task needn’t be overly complex.

It’s pretty obvious from the video below that [NightHawkInLight]’s solar tracker is just a proof-of-concept for now, but it certainly shows promise. It’s based on NASA’s sun-skimming Parker Solar Probe, which uses sensors at the rear of the probe to maneuver the craft to keep sunlight from peeking around the sides of the shield. [NightHawkInLight]’s design simplifies that scheme even more, by using solar cells as the four sensors. The cells, mounted behind a solar shade, are directly connected to small gear motors that control azimuth and elevation. When a cell sees the sun, it powers the motor that moves the panel the right way to occlude the sun again, thereby cutting power to the motor.

[NightHawkInLight] mentions the obvious problem of what happens when the sun comes up and the array is pointing the complete opposite direction after the previous sunset, but we’re still not sure his solution – a larger array with tracking cells mounted further apart – will work. We’re also not sure how it will scale to larger arrays that need bigger motors to move. We’ve seen such arrays handled with more complicated trackers, of course, but we hope the simplicity of this design can be made practical for real-world use.

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Linux as a Library: Unikernels are Coming

If you think about it, an operating system kernel is really just a very powerful shared library that offers services to many programs. Of course, it is a very powerful library, but still — its main purpose is to provide services to programs. Your program probably doesn’t use all of the myriad services the kernel provides. Even a typical system might not fully use all the things that are in a typical kernel. Red Hat has a new initiative to bring a technology called unikernels to the forefront. A unikernel is a single application linked with just enough of the kernel for it to execute. As you might expect, this can result in a smaller system and better security.

It can also lead to better performance. The unikernel doesn’t have to maintain devices and services that are not used. Also, the kernel and the application can run in the same privilege ring. That may seem like a security hole, but if you think about it, the only reason a regular kernel runs at a higher privilege is to protect itself from a malicious application modifying the kernel to do something bad to another application. In this case, there is no other application.

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