Fail of the Week: How Not to Design an RF Signal Generator

We usually reserve the honor of Fail of the Week for one of us – someone laboring at the bench who just couldn’t get it together, or perhaps someone who came perilously close to winning a Darwin Award. We generally don’t highlight commercial products in FotW, but in the case of this substandard RF signal generator, we’ll make an exception.

We suppose the fail-badge could be pinned on [electronupdate] for this one in a way; after all, he did shell out $200 for the RF Explorer signal generator, which touts coverage from 24 MHz to 6 GHz. But in true lemons-to-lemonade fashion, the video below he provides us with a thorough analysis of the unit’s performance and a teardown of the unit.

The first step is a look at the signal with a spectrum analyzer, which was not encouraging. Were the unit generating a pure sine wave as it should, we wouldn’t see the forest of spikes indicating harmonics across the band. The oscilloscope isn’t much better; the waveform is closer to a square wave than a sine. Under the hood, he found a PIC microcontroller and a MAX2870 frequency synthesizer, but a conspicuous absence of any RF filtering components, which explains how the output got so crusty. Granted, $200 is not a lot to spend compared to what a lab-grade signal generator with such a wide frequency range would cost. And sure, external filters could help. But for $200, it seems reasonable to expect at least some filtering.

We applaud [electronupdate] for taking one for the team here and providing some valuable tips on RF design dos and don’ts. We’re used to seeing him do teardowns of components, like this peek inside surface-mount inductors, but we like thoughtful reviews like this too.

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Fail of the Week: Solid State Relay Fails Spectacularly

A lot of times these days, it seems like we hackers are a little like kids in a candy store. With so many cool devices available for pennies at the click of a mouse, it’s temptingly easy to order first and ask questions about quality later. Most of the time that works out just fine, with the main risk of sourcing a dodgy component being a ruined afternoon of hacking when a part fails.

The stakes are much higher when you’re connecting your project to the house mains, though, as [Mattias Wandel] recently learned when the solid-state relay controlling his water heater failed, with nearly tragic results. With aplomb that defies the fact that he just discovered that he nearly burned his house down, [Mattias] tours the scene of the crime and delivers a postmortem of the victim, a Fotek SSR-25DA. It appears that he mounted it well and gave it a decent heatsink, but the thing immolated itself just the same. The only remnant of the relay’s PCB left intact was the triac mounted to the rear plate. [Mattias] suspects the PCB traces heated up when he returned from vacation and the water heater it was controlling came on; with a tank full of cold water, both elements were needed and enough current was drawn to melt the solder build-up on the high-voltage traces. With the solder gone, the traces cooked off, and the rest is history. It’s a scary scenario that’s worth looking at if you’ve got any SSRs controlling loads anywhere near their rated limit.

The morals of the story: buy quality components and test them if possible; when in doubt, derate; and make sure a flaming component can’t light anything else on fire. And you’ll want to review the basics of fire protection while you’re at it.

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Fail Of The Week: How Not To Make A 3D Scanner

Sometimes the best you can say about a project is, “Nice start.” That’s the case for this as-yet awful DIY 3D scanner, which can serve both as a launching point for further development and a lesson in what not to do.

Don’t get us wrong, we have plenty of respect for [bitluni] and for the fact that he posts his failures as well as his successes, like composite video and AM radio signals from an ESP32. He used an ESP8266 in this project, which actually uses two different sensors: an ultrasonic transducer, and a small time-of-flight laser chip. Each was mounted to a two-axis scanner built from hobby servos and 3D-printed parts. The pitch and yaw axes move the sensors through a hemisphere gathering data, but unfortunately, the Wemos D1 Mini lacks the RAM to render the complete point cloud from the raw points. That’s farmed out to a WebGL page. Initial results with the ultrasonic sensor were not great, and the TOF sensor left everything to be desired too. But [bitluni] stuck with it, and got a few results that at least make it look like he’s heading in the right direction.

We expect he’ll get this sorted out and come back with some better results, but in the meantime, we applaud his willingness to post this so that we can all benefit from his pain. He might want to check out the results from this polished and pricey LIDAR scanner for inspiration.

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Fail Of The Week: ESP Walkie, Not-So-Talkie

The ESP8266 has become such a staple of projects in our community since it burst onto the scene a few years ago. The combination of a super-fast processor and wireless networking all on the same chip and sold in retail quantities for relative pennies has been irresistible. So when [Petteri Aimonen] needed to make a wireless intercom system for cycling trips it seemed an obvious choice. Push its internal ADC to sample at a high enogh rate for audio, and stream the result over an ad-hoc wi-fi network.

The result was far from satisfactory, as while early results with a signal generator seemed good, in practice it was unusable. Significant amounts of noise were entering the pathway such that the resulting audio was unintelligible. It seems that running a wireless network causes abrupt and very short spikes of power supply current that play havoc with audio ADCs.

He’s submitted it to us as a Fail Of The Week and he’s right, it is a fail. But in a way that’s an unfair description, because we can see there is the germ of a seriously good idea in there. Perhaps with an external ADC, or maybe with some as-yet-to-be-determined filtering scheme, an ESP8266 walkie-talkie is one of those ideas that should be taken to its conclusion. We hope he perseveres.

Fail of the Week: When Good Foundries Go Bad

Like many of us, [Tony] was entranced by the idea of casting metal, and set about building the tools he’d need to melt aluminum for lost-PLA casting. Little did he know that he was about to exceed the limits of his system and melt a hole in his patio.

[Tony]’s tale of woe begins innocently enough, and where it usually begins for wannabe metal casters: with [The King of Random]’s homemade foundry-in-a-bucket. It’s just a steel pail with a homebrew refractory lining poured in place, with a hole near the bottom to act as a nozzle for forced air, or tuyère. [Tony]’s build followed the plans pretty faithfully, but lacking the spent fire extinguisher [The King] used for a crucible in the original build, he improvised and used the bottom of an old propane cylinder. A test firing with barbecue charcoal sort of worked, but it was clear that more heat was needed. So [Tony] got hold of some fine Welsh anthracite coal, which is where the fun began. With the extra heat, the foundry became a mini-blast furnace that melted the thin steel crucible, dumping the molten aluminum into the raging coal fire. The video below shows the near catastrophe, and we hope that once [Tony] changed his pants, he hustled off to buy a cheap graphite or ceramic crucible for the next firing.

All kidding aside, this is a vivid reminder of the stakes when something unexpected (or entirely predictable) goes wrong, and the need to be prepared to deal with it. A bucket of dry sand to smother a fire might be a good idea, and protective clothing is a must. And it pays to manage your work area to minimize potential collateral damage, too — we doubt that patio will ever be the same again.

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Fail of the Week: Careful Case Mod is all for Naught

Today’s entry comes to us from [Robert Tomsons], who was kind enough to document this crushing tale of woe so that we might all learn what true heartbreak is. If you’ve ever toiled away at getting that perfect surface finish with body filler, this one is going to hurt. In fact, you might just want to hit that “Back” button and head to safety now. There’s probably a pleasant story about some 3D printed thing being used with a Raspberry Pi of some sort that you can read instead.

For those of you brave enough to continue on, today we’ll be looking at what [Robert] thought would be a simple enough project. Seeing the board from a USB 3.0 external hard drive kicking around his parts bin, he had a rather unusual idea. Wanting to add an extra drive to his computer, but liking the idea of being able to independently control its power, he decided to integrate the external drive into machine’s front panel. This would not only allow him to power off the secondary drive when not in use, but it meant he could just plug his laptop into the front panel if he wanted to pull files off of it.

All [Robert] needed to do was make it look nice. He carefully squared off the edges of the external drive’s back panel to roughly the size of the computer’s 3.5 inch drive bay opening. He then glued the piece in place, and began the arduous task of using body filler to smooth everything out. It’s a dance that many a Hackaday reader will know all too well: filler, sand, primer, sand, filler, sand, primer, sand, so on and so on. In the end, the final result looked perfect; you’d never have thought the front panel wasn’t stock.

It should have been so easy. Just snap the case back together and be done with it. But when [Robert] finally got the machine buttoned back up and looked at the front, well, it’s safe to say his day couldn’t get much worse. Maybe the glue was not up to the task. Perhaps it was how excited he was to get the case put back together; a momentary loss of muscular coordination. A few extra foot-pounds of energy per second, per second. Who can say?

[Robert] says he’ll return to the project, but for now he needs a break. We agree. Interestingly, he mentions in his post that his body filler work was inspired by [Eric Strebel], a name that is well known around these parts. Considering how good it looked before it exploded, we’ll consider that high praise.

Fail of the Week: Two Rotors Are Not Better Than Four

Fair warning: [Paweł Spychalski]’s video is mostly him talking about how bad his “dualcopter” ended up. There are a few sequences of the ill-fated UAV undergoing flight tests, most of which seem to end with it doing a reasonable impression of a post-hole auger. We have to admit that it’s a pretty poor drone. But one can only truly fail if one fails to have some fun doing it, [Paweł] enjoyed considerable success, at least judging by the glee with which he repeatedly cratered the craft.

The overall idea seems to make sense, with coaxial props mounted in the middle of a circular 3D-printed frame. Mounted below the props are crossed vanes controlled by two servos. The vanes sit in the rotor wash and provide pitch and roll control, while yaw and thrust are controlled by varying the speeds of the counter-rotating props. [Paweł] knew going in that this was a sketchy aerodynamic design, and was surprised it performed as well as it did. But with ground effects limiting roll and pitch control close to the ground, the less-than-adequate thrust due to turbulence between the rotors, and the tendency for the center of mass and the center of gravity to get out whack with each other, all made for a joyously unstable and difficult to control aircraft.

Despite the poor performance, [Paweł] has plans for a Mark II dualrotor, a smaller craft with some changes based on what he learned. He’s no slouch at pushing the limits with multirotors, with 3D-printed racing quad frames and using LoRa for control beyond visual range. Still, we’re sure he’d appreciate constructive criticism in the comments, and we wish him luck with the next one.

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