A Peek Inside A Typical British Residential Power Panel

No matter what field you’re in, it’s interesting and instructive to find out how others practice it. That’s especially true with electrical distribution systems, where standards and practices differ from country to country and even between regions. This tour of a typical British residential electrical panel is a great example of the different ways that the same engineering problems can be solved, and the compromises that always attend any design.

We’re used to seeing [Big Clive] tearing interesting devices to bits, but rest assured that this electrical panel remains largely intact as it gives up its secrets. Compared to the distribution panels and circuit breakers common in North American residential construction, the British consumer unit is a marvel of neatness and simplicity. True, the unit on display hasn’t been put into service yet, and things will no doubt change once an electrician is through with it, but the fact that everything is DIN rail mounted is pretty cool. [Clive] explains a few of the quirks of the panel, such as the fact that what looks like a main breaker is in fact just an isolation switch, and that there are a pair of residual current devices (RCDs), which we call ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) in North America, that also don’t act as circuit breakers, despite appearances. A stout bus bar is provided to link the RCDs to adjacent circuit breakers, forming two groups that are separately protected from ground faults.

[Clive] notes with dismay that the lugs of the bus bar can actually be inserted behind the rising clamp terminal on the breaker, resulting in poor connections and overheating. Still, we wouldn’t mind some of these concepts brought to panels in North America, which we covered a bit in a discussion on circuit protection a while back.

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These Wire Strippers Are Made From PCBs

The rise in cheap PCB fabrication has made old-school prototyping methods such as wire wrapping somewhat passé, but it still has its place. And if you’re going to wire wrap, you’re going to want a quick and easy way to strip that fine Kynar-insulated wire. So why not use PCB material to make this handy wire-wrapping wire stripper?

The tool that [danielrp] built is pretty simple – just a pair of razor blades held together so as to form a narrow slot to cut insulation while leaving the conductor untouched. The body of the tool is formed of two PCBs, between which the blades are sandwiched. [danielrp] designed the outline of the PCBs in DraftSight, then exported a DXF into EAGLE to make the Gerbers. The fabricated boards needed a little post-processing, including tapping the holes on one side to accept the screws that hold the tool together. We were surprised that FR4 took the threads at all, but it seems to work for this low-torque application. The disposable snap-type blades were sandwiched between the PCBs and the gap between them adjusted for nick-free stripping. The video below shows the design and build process.

We always appreciate homemade tools, and the fact that you can get a stack of PCBs for almost nothing makes us wonder what else we could use them for. We recently saw them used in a unique word clock, and even turned into a folding circuit sculpture.

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The $50 Ham: Checking Out the Local Repeater Scene

So far in this series, we’ve covered the absolute basics of getting on the air as a radio amateur – getting licensed, and getting a transceiver. Both have been very low-cost exercises, at least in terms of wallet impact. Passing the test is only a matter of spending the time to study and perhaps shelling out a nominal fee, and a handy-talkie transceiver for the 2-meter and 70-centimeter ham bands can be had for well under $50. If you’re playing along at home, you haven’t really invested much yet.

The total won’t go up much this week, if at all. This time we’re going to talk about what to actually do with your new privileges. The first step for most Technician-class amateur radio operators is checking out the local repeaters, most of which are set up exactly for the bands that Techs have access to. We’ll cover what exactly repeaters are, what they’re used for, and how to go about keying up for the first time to talk to your fellow hams.

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Interactive Demo Shows the Power of Fourier Transforms

When it comes to mathematics, the average person can probably get through most of life well enough with just basic algebra. Some simple statistical concepts would be helpful, and a little calculus couldn’t hurt. But that leaves out a lot of interesting mathematical concepts that really do have applications in everyday life and are just plain fascinating in their own right.

Chief among these concepts is the Fourier transform, which is the key to understanding everything from how JPEGs work to how we can stream audio and video over the Internet. To help get your mind around the concept, [Jez Swanson] has this interactive Fourier transform visualizer that really drives home the important points. This is high-level stuff; it just covers the basic concepts of a Fourier transform, how they work, and what they’re good for in everyday life. There are no equations, just engaging animations that show how any function can be decomposed into a set of sine waves. One shows the approximation of a square wave with a slider to control to vary the number of component sine waves; a button lets you hear the resulting sound getting harsher as it approaches a true square wave. There’s also a great bit on epicycles and SVGs, and one of the best introductions to encoding images as JPEGs that we’ve seen. The best part: all the code behind the demos is available on GitHub.

In terms of making Fourier transform concepts accessible, we’d put [Jez]’s work right up there with such devices as the original Michelson harmonic analyzer, or even its more recent plywood reproduction. Plus the interactive demos were a lot of fun to play with.

[via the Adafruit blog]

Flex PCBs Make Force-Mapping Pressure Sensor for Amputee

What prosthetic limbs can do these days is nothing short of miraculous, and can change the life of an amputee in so many ways. But no matter what advanced sensors and actuators are added to the prosthetic, it has to interface with the wearer’s body, and that can lead to problems.

Measuring and mapping the pressure on the residual limb is the business of this flexible force-sensing matrix. The idea for a two-dimensional force map came from one of [chris.coulson]’s classmates, an amputee who developed a single-channel pressure sensor to help him solve a painful fitting problem. [chris.coulson] was reminded of a piezoresistive yoga mat build from [Marco Reps], which we featured a while back, and figured a scaled-down version might be just the thing to map pressure points across the prosthetic interface. Rather than the expensive and tediously-applied web of copper tape [Marco] used, [chris] chose flexible PCBs to sandwich the Velostat piezoresistive material. An interface board multiplexes the 16 elements of the sensor array to a PIC which gathers and records testing data. [chris] even built a test stand with a solenoid to apply pressure to the sensor and test its frequency response to determine what sorts of measurements are possible.

We think the project is a great application for flex PCBs, and a perfect entry into our Flexible PCB Contest. You should enter too. Even though [chris] has a prototype, you don’t need one to enter: just an idea would do. Do something up on Fritzing, make a full EAGLE schematic, or just jot a block diagram down on a napkin. We want to see your ideas, and if it’s good enough you can win a flex PCB to get you started. What are you waiting for?

Autodesk Fusion 360 Hack Chat

Join us Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the Autodesk Fusion 360 Hack Chat!

Most of us have a collection of tools that we use for the various mechanical, electronic, and manufacturing tasks we face daily. But if you were asked to name one tool that stretches across all these spaces, Autodesk Fusion 360 would certainly spring to mind. Everyone from casual designers of 3D-printed widgets to commercial CNC machine shops use it as an end to end design solution, and anyone who has used it over the last year or so knows that the feature set in Fusion is expanding rapidly.

Matt, who goes by technolomaniac on Hackaday.io, is Director of Product Development for EAGLE, Tinkercad, and Fusion 360 at Autodesk. He’ll drop by the Hack Chat this week to discuss your questions about:

  • All the Autodesk design software components, from EAGLE to Fusion and beyond
  • Future plans for an EAGLE-Fusion integration
  • Support for manufacturing, including additive, CNC, and even mold making
  • Will there ever be “one design tool to rule them all?”

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Autodesk Fusion 360 Hack Chat page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 10, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Give Your Raspberry Pi SD Card a Break: Log to RAM

The fragility of SD cards is the weak link in the Raspberry Pi ecosystem. Most of us seem to have at least one Pi tucked away somewhere, running a Magic Mirror, driving security cameras, or even taking care of a media library. But chances are, that Pi is writing lots and lots of log files. Logging is good — it helps when tracking down issues — but uncontrolled logging can lead to problems down the road with the Pi’s SD card.

[Erich Styger] has a neat way to avoid SD card logging issues on Raspberry Pi, he calls it a solution to reduce “thrashing” of the SD card. The problem is that flash memory segments wear out after a fairly low number of erase cycles, and the SD card’s wear-leveling algorithm will eventually cordon off enough of the card to cause file system issues. His “Log2Ram” is a simple Unix shell script that sets up a mount point for logging in RAM rather than on the SD card.

The idea is that any application or service sending log entries to /var/log will actually be writing them to virtual log files, which won’t rack up any activity on the SD card. Every hour, a cron job sweeps the virtual logs out to the SD card, greatly reducing its wear. There’s still a chance to lose logging data before it’s swept to disk, but if you have relatively stable system it’s a small price to pay for the long-term health of a Pi that’s out of sight and out of mind.

One thing we really like about [Erich]’s project is that it’s a great example of shell scripting and Linux admin concepts. If you need more information on such things, check out [Al Williams’] Linux-Fu series. It goes back quite a way, so settle in for some good binge reading.