SMT Part Counter Aims To Ease Taking Inventory

[Nick Poole] has an interesting idea for a new tool, one that has the simple goal of making accurate part counts of SMT reels as easy as pulling tape through a device. That device is the BeanCounter, an upcoming small handheld unit of his own design that counts parts as quickly as one can pull tape through a slot. The device is powered by a CR2032 cell and and works with 8 mm wide tapes up to 2 mm in height, which [Nick] says covers most 0805 or smaller sized parts, as well as things like SOT-23 transistors.

Why would one want to make such a task easier? Two compelling reasons for such a tool include: taking inventory of parts on partial reels or cut tape, and creating segments that contain a known number of parts.

The first is handy for obvious reasons, and the second is useful for things like creating kits. In fact, the usefulness of this tool for creating tape segments of fixed length is perhaps not obvious to anyone who hasn’t done it by hand. Sure, one can measure SMT tape with a ruler or a reference mark to yield a segment containing a fixed number of parts, but that involves a lot of handling and doesn’t scale up very well. In fact, the hassle of cutting tape segments accurately and repeatedly is a common pain point, so making the job easier has value.

If you looked at the photos and suspected that the big, 7-segment numeric display is done with clever PCB fabrication options (making segments by shining LEDs through PCB layers, a trick we always like to see) you’re not alone. After all, [Nick] has a lot of experience in getting clever with board fabrication, and eagle-eyed readers may even suspect that the reset and setup buttons on the edge of the tool are created by using flex PCB segments as switches. Want the nitty-gritty details? Visit the GitHub repository for the project and see it all for yourself at the CAD level.

OAK-D Depth Sensing AI Camera Gets Smaller And Lighter

The OAK-D is an open-source, full-color depth sensing camera with embedded AI capabilities, and there is now a crowdfunding campaign for a newer, lighter version called the OAK-D Lite. The new model does everything the previous one could do, combining machine vision with stereo depth sensing and an ability to run highly complex image processing tasks all on-board, freeing the host from any of the overhead involved.

Animated face with small blue dots as 3D feature markers.
An example of real-time feature tracking, now in 3D thanks to integrated depth sensing.

The OAK-D Lite camera is actually several elements together in one package: a full-color 4K camera, two greyscale cameras for stereo depth sensing, and onboard AI machine vision processing with Intel’s Movidius Myriad X processor. Tying it all together is an open-source software platform called DepthAI that wraps the camera’s functions and capabilities together into a unified whole.

The goal is to give embedded systems access to human-like visual perception in real-time, which at its core means detecting things, and identifying where they are in physical space. It does this with a combination of traditional machine vision functions (like edge detection and perspective correction), depth sensing, and the ability to plug in pre-trained convolutional neural network (CNN) models for complex tasks like object classification, pose estimation, or hand tracking in real-time.

So how is it used? Practically speaking, the OAK-D Lite is a USB device intended to be plugged into a host (running any OS), and the team has put a lot of work into making it as easy as possible. With the help of a downloadable application, the hardware can be up and running with examples in about half a minute. Integrating the device into other projects or products can be done in Python with the help of the DepthAI SDK, which provides functionality with minimal coding and configuration (and for more advanced users, there is also a full API for low-level access). Since the vision processing is all done on-board, even a Raspberry Pi Zero can be used effectively as a host.

There’s one more thing that improves the ease-of-use situation, and that’s the fact that support for the OAK-D Lite (as well as the previous OAK-D) has been added to a software suite called the Cortic Edge Platform (CEP). CEP is a block-based visual coding system that runs on a Raspberry Pi, and is aimed at anyone who wants to rapidly prototype with AI tools in a primarily visual interface, providing yet another way to glue a project together.

Earlier this year we saw the OAK-D used in a system to visually identify weeds and estimate biomass in agriculture, and it’s exciting to see a new model being released. If you’re interested, the OAK-D Lite is available at a considerable discount during the Kickstarter campaign.

Two hands on a book labeled "hardware crowdfunding"

Successfully Crowdfunded Hardware: Everything Behind The Scenes

Crowdfunding hardware has its own unique challenges, and [Uri Shaked] wrote a fascinating report that goes into excellent detail about his experience bringing a crowdfunded hardware project to life.

A skull-shaped PCB with two red eyes[Uri]’s project was The Skull CTF, an electronic hardware puzzle that came in the shape of a PCB skull, and his detailed look behind the scenes covers just about every angle, from original concept to final wrap-up, along with his thoughts and feedback at every stage. His project reached its funding goal, got manufactured and shipped, and in the end was a success.

[Uri] started with a working project, but beyond that was virtually a complete novice when it came to crowdfunding. He eventually settled on using Crowd Supply to make his idea happen, and his writeup explains in great detail every stage of that process, including dollar amounts. What’s great to see is that not only does [Uri] explain the steps and decisions involved, but explains the research that went into each, and how he feels each of them ended up working out.

The entire thing is worth a read, but [Uri] summarizes the experience of crowdfunding a hardware project thus: an excellent way to test out the demand for an idea and bring a product into existence, but be aware that unless a project is a runaway success it probably won’t be much of an income generator at that stage. It was a great learning experience, but involved a lot of time and effort on his part as well.

[Uri] really knows his stuff, and considering his skill at hunting down pesky bugs, it’s probably no surprise that this wasn’t his first hardware puzzle.

One Man’s Quest To Build A Baby Book With Brains

Regular readers will know that Hackaday generally steers clear of active crowdfunding campaigns. But occasionally we do run across a project that’s unique enough that we feel compelled to dust off our stamp of approval. Especially if the campaign has already blasted past its funding goal, and we don’t have to feel bad about getting you fine folks excited over vaporware.

It’s with these caveats in mind that we present to you Computer Engineering for Babies, by [Chase Roberts]. The product of five years of research and development, this board book utilizes an internal microcontroller to help illustrate the functions of boolean logic operations like AND, OR, and XOR in an engaging way. Intended for toddlers but suitable for curious minds of all ages, the book has already surpassed 500% of its funding goal on Kickstarter at the time of this writing with no signs of slowing down.

The electronics as seen from the rear of the book.

Technical details are light on the Kickstarter page to keep things simple, but [Chase] was happy to talk specifics when we reached out to him. He explained that the original plan was to use discreet components, with early prototypes simply routing the button through the gates specified on the given page. This worked, but wasn’t quite as robust a solution as he’d like. So eventually the decision was made to move the book over to the low-power ATmega328PB microcontroller and leverage the MiniCore project so the books could be programmed with the Arduino IDE.

Obviously battery life was a major concern with the project, as a book that would go dead after sitting on the shelf for a couple weeks simply wouldn’t do. To that end, [Chase] says his code makes extensive use of the Arduino LowPower library. Essentially the firmware wakes up the ATmega every 15 ms to see if a button has been pressed or the page turned, and updates the LED state accordingly. If no changes have been observed after roughly two minutes, the chip will go into a deep sleep and won’t wake up again until an interrupt has been fired by the yellow button being pressed. He says there are some edge cases where this setup might misbehave, but in general, the book should be able to run for about a year on a coin cell.

[Chase] tells us the biggest problem was finding a reliable way to determine which page the book was currently turned to. In fact, he expects to keep tinkering with this aspect of the design until the books actually ship. The current solution uses five phototransistors attached to the the MCU’s ADC pins, which receive progressively more light as fewer pages are laying on top of them. The first sensor is exposed when the second page of the book is opened, so for example, if three of the sensors are seeing elevated light levels the code would assume the user is on page four.

Opening to the last page exposes all five light sensors.

The books and PCBs are being manufactured separately, since as you might expect, finding a single company that had experience with both proved difficult. [Chase] plans on doing the final assembly and programming of each copy in-house with the help of family members; given how many have already been sold this early in the campaign, we hope he’s got a lot of cousins.

So what do you do with an Arduino-compatible book when Junior gets tired of it? That’s what we’re particularly interested in finding out. [Chase] says he’s open to releasing the firmware as an open source project after the dust settles from the Kickstarter campaign, which would give owners a base to build from should they want to roll their own custom firmware. Obviously the peripheral hardware of the book is fairly limited, but nothing is stopping you from hanging some sensors on the I2C bus or hijacking the unused GPIO pins.

If you end up teaching your copy of Computer Engineering for Babies some new tricks, we’ve love to hear about it.

Continue reading “One Man’s Quest To Build A Baby Book With Brains”

Hands-On Review: TCam-Mini WiFi Thermal Imager

A thermal camera is a tool I have been wanting to add to my workbench for quite a while, so when I learned about the tCam-Mini, a wireless thermal camera by Dan Julio, I placed an order. A thermal imager is a camera whose images represent temperatures, making it easy to see things like hot and cold spots, or read the temperature of any point within the camera’s view. The main (and most expensive) component of the tCam-Mini is the Lepton 3.5 sensor, which sits in a socket in the middle of the board. The sensor is sold separately, but the campaign made it available as an add-on.

Want to see how evenly a 3D printer’s heat bed is warming up, or check whether a hot plate is actually reflowing PCBs at the optimal temperature? How about just seeing how weird your pets would look if you had heat vision instead of normal eyes? A thermal imager like the tCam-mini is the tool for that, but it’s important to understand exactly how the tCam-mini works. While it may look like a webcam, it does not work like one.

Continue reading “Hands-On Review: TCam-Mini WiFi Thermal Imager”

How The Flipper Zero Hacker Multitool Gets Made And Tested

Flipper Zero is an open-source multitool for hackers, and [Pavel] recently shared details on what goes into the production and testing of these devices. Each unit contains four separate PCBs, and in high-volume production it is inevitable that some boards are faulty in some way. Not all faults are identical — some are not even obvious —  but they all must be dealt with before they end up in a finished product.

One of several custom test jigs for Flipper Zero. Faults in high volume production are inevitable, and detecting them early is best.

Designing a process to effectively detect and deal with faults is a serious undertaking, one the Flipper Zero team addressed by designing a separate test station for each of the separate PCBs, allowing detection of defects as early as possible. Each board gets fitted into a custom test jig, then is subjected to an automated barrage of tests to ensure everything is as expected before being given the green light. A final test station gives a check to completed assemblies, and every test is logged into a database.

It may seem tempting to skip testing the individual boards and instead just do a single comprehensive test on finished units, but when dealing with production errors, it’s important to detect issues as early in the workflow as possible. The later a problem is detected, the more difficult and expensive it is to address. The worst possible outcome is to put a defective unit into a customer’s hands, where a issue is found only after all of the time and cost of assembly and shipping has already been spent. Another reason to detect issues early is that some faults become more difficult to address the later they are discovered. For example, a dim LED or poor antenna performance is much harder to troubleshoot when detected in a completely assembled unit, because the fault could be anywhere.

[Pavel] provides plenty of pictures and details about the production of Flipper Zero, and it’s nice to see how the project is progressing since its hyper-successful crowdfunding campaign.

Looks Like A Pi Zero, Is Actually An ESP32 Development Board

ATMegaZero ESP32- S2, showing optional color-coded 40-pin header (top)

The ATMegaZero ESP32-S2 is currently being funded with a campaign on GroupGets, and it’s a microcontroller board modeled after the Raspberry Pi Zero’s form factor. That means instead of the embedded Linux system most of us know and love, it’s an ESP32-based development board with the same shape and 40-pin GPIO header as the Pi Zero. As a bonus, it has some neat features like a connector for inexpensive SSD1306 and SH1106-based OLED displays.

Being able to use existing accessories can go a long way towards easing a project’s creation, and leveraging that is one of the reasons for sharing the Pi Zero form factor. Ease of use is also one of the goals, so the boards will ship with CircuitPython (derived from MicroPython), and can also be used with the Arduino IDE.

If a microcontroller board using the Pi Zero form factor looks a bit familiar, you might be remembering the original ATMegaZero which was based on the Atmel ATMega32U4, but to get wireless communications one needed to attach a separate ESP8266 module. This newer board keeps the ATMegaZero name and footprint, but now uses the Espressif ESP32-S2 to provide all the necessary functions.

CircuitPython has been a feature in a wide variety of projects and hacks we’ve seen here at Hackaday, and it’s a fine way to make a microcontroller board easy to use right out of the box.