These magical creatures crop up out of nowhere and fry your electronics or annoy your ear holes. Understanding them will doubtless save you money and hassle. The ground loop in a nutshell is what happens when two separate devices (A and B) are connected to ground separately, and then also connected to each other through some kind of communication cable with a ground, creating a loop. This provides two separate paths to ground (B can go through its own connection to ground or it can go through the ground of the cable to A and then to A’s ground), and means that current may start flowing in unanticipated ways. This is particularly noticeable in analog AV setups, where the result is audio hum or visible bars in a picture, but is also sometimes the cause of unexplained equipment failures. Continue reading “WTF are Ground Loops?”
There are certain design guidelines for PCBs that don’t make a lot of sense, and practices that seem excessive and unnecessary. Often these are motivated by the black magic that is RF transmission. This is either an unfortunate and unintended consequence of electronic circuits, or a magical and useful feature of them, and a lot of design time goes into reducing or removing these effects or tuning them.
You’re wondering how important this is for your projects and whether you should worry about unintentional radiated emissions. On the Baddeley scale of importance:
- Pffffft – You’re building a one-off project that uses battery power and a single microcontroller with a few GPIO. Basically all your Arduino projects and around-the-house fun.
- Meh – You’re building a one-off that plugs into a wall or has an intentional radio on board — a run-of-the-mill IoT thingamajig. Or you’re selling a product that is battery powered but doesn’t intentionally transmit anything.
- Yeeeaaaaahhhhhhh – You’re selling a product that is wall powered.
- YES – You’re selling a product that is an intentional transmitter, or has a lot of fast signals, or is manufactured in large volumes.
- SMH – You’re the manufacturer of a neon sign that is taking out all wireless signals within a few blocks.
Chances are good that you’ve already lost some blood to thermoforming, the plastics manufacturing process that turns a flat sheet of material into an unopenable clamshell package, tray inside a box, plastic cup, or leftover food container. Besides being a source of unboxing danger, it’s actually a useful technique to have in your fabrication toolchest. In this issue of Tools of the Trade, we look at how thermoforming is used in products, and how you can hack it yourself.
The process is simple; take a sheet of plastic material, usually really thin stuff, but it can get as thick as 1/8″, heat it up so that it is soft and pliable, put it over a mold, convince it to take all the contours of the mold, let it cool, remove it from the mold, and then cut it out of the sheet. Needless to say, there will be details.
Having finished the Tools of the Trade series on circuit board assembly, let’s look at some of the common methods for doing enclosures. First, and possibly the most common, is injection molding. This is the process of taking hot plastic, squirting it through a small hole and into a cavity, letting it cool, and then removing the hardened plastic formed in the shape of the cavity.
The machine itself has three major parts; the hopper, the screw, and the mold. The hopper is where the plastic pellets are dumped in. These pellets are tiny flecks of plastic, and if the product is to be colored there will be colorant pellets added at some ratio. The hopper will also usually have a dehumidifier attached to it to remove as much water from the pellets as possible. Water screws up the process because it vaporizes and creates little air bubbles.
Next the plastic flecks go into one end of the screw. The screw’s job is to turn slowly, forcing the plastic into ever smaller channels as it goes through a heating element, mixing the melted plastic with the colorant and getting consistent coloring, temperature, and ever increasing pressure. By the time the plastic is coming out the other end of the screw, and with the assistance of a hydraulic jack, it can be at hundreds of tons of pressure.
Finally, the plastic enters the mold, where it flows through channels into the empty cavity, and allowed to sit briefly to cool. The mold then separates and ejector pins push the part out of the cavity.
A lot of people assume that the product development cycle involves R&D, outsourcing to a Chinese manufacturer, and then selling the finished product. It’s almost ingrained in our heads that once a prototype has been developed, the next step involves a visa and airplane tickets. Here is a guide that will explore a few other options, and why outsourcing may not be appropriate for everyone.
First, let’s talk about goals. We’ll assume you’re not a large company, and that you don’t have a huge budget, and that you’re just getting started with your product and don’t have big volumes; a startup trying to sell a kit or breakout board, or a consumer electronics product. Your goals are the following:
- Validate your product in the market. Build a minimum viable product and get it in the hands of lots of users
- Get the most bang for your limited bucks. All money should go towards getting products out the door
- Reduce risk to your company so that any single failure doesn’t crater the whole operation and you can safely grow.
With that in mind, what are your options?
When a consumer electronics device is sold in the US, especially if it has a wireless aspect, it must be tested for compliance with FCC regulations and the test results filed with the FCC (see preparing your product for FCC testing). These documents are then made available online for all to see in the Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) Laboratory Equipment Authorization System (EAS). In fact, it’s this publishing in this and other FCC databases that has led to many leaks about new product releases, some of which we’ve covered, and others we’ve been privileged enough to know about before the filings but whose breaking was forced when the documents were filed, like the Raspberry Pi 3. It turns out that there are a lot of useful things that can be accomplished by poring over FCC filings, and we’ll explore some of them.
At some point you’ve decided that you’re going to sell your wireless product (or any product with a clock that operates above 8kHz) in the United States. Good luck! You’re going to have to go through the FCC to get listed on the FCC OET EAS (Office of Engineering and Technology, Equipment Authorization System). Well… maybe.
As with everything FCC related, it’s very complicated, there are TLAs and confusing terms everywhere, and it will take you a lot longer than you’d like to figure out what it means for you. Whether you suffer through this, breeze by without a hitch, or never plan to subject yourself to this process, the FCC dance is an entertaining story so let’s dive in!