Fail of the Week: Electromigration Nearly Killed This Xerox Alto

The Living Computers museum in Seattle has a Xerox Alto, the machine famous for being the first to sport a mouse-based windowing graphical user interface. They received it in working condition and put it in their exhibit, but were dismayed when a year later it ceased to operate. Some detective work revealed that the power supply was failing to reach parts of the machine, and further investigation revealed an unlikely culprit. Electromigration had degraded the contacts between the supply pins and the backplane traces.

If electromigration is new to you, don’t feel ashamed, it was a new one to us too. It’s “the transport of material caused by the gradual movement of the ions in a conductor due to the momentum transfer between conducting electrons and diffusing metal atoms“, got it? Okay, that’s just a long way to say that passing a sufficiently high current through a conductor for a long time can physically move the metal of that conductor.

This one just doesn’t pop up very often. But in the case of the Alto, an under-specified power distribution system caused a lot of current to flow through too few solder joints. Those joints were left without enough metal to make a decent connection, so they failed.

The fix came with a set of sturdy busbars freshly soldered to the pins, but the interest in this piece comes more from the unusual phenomenon that caused it. That soldered joints can seemingly flow away defies belief. It’s still something most of us will never encounter, but like tales of ball lightning it’s one for the “Fancy that!” collection.

We’ve covered the Alto before, most notably [Ken Shirriff]’s work in restoring the Computer History Museum’s example.

Fail of the Week: EPROMs, Rats’ Nests, Tanning Lamps, and Cardboard on Fire

It all started when I bought a late-1990s synthesizer that needed a firmware upgrade. One could simply pull the ROM chip, ship it off to Yamaha for a free replacement, and swap in the new one — in 2003. Lacking a time machine, a sensible option is to buy a pre-programmed aftermarket EPROM on eBay for $10, and if you just want a single pre-flashed EPROM that’s probably the right way to go. But I wanted an adventure.

Spoiler alert: I did manage to flash a few EPROMs and the RM1X is happily running OS 1.13 and pumping out the jams. That’s not the adventure. The adventure is trying to erase UV-erasable EPROMS.

And that’s how I ended up with a small cardboard fire and a scorched tanning lamp, and why I bought a $5 LED, and why I left EPROMs out in the sun for four days. And why, in the end, I gave up and ordered a $15 EPROM eraser from China. Along the way, I learned a ton about old-school UV-erasable EPROMs, and now I have a stack of obsolete silicon that’s looking for a new project like a hammer looks for a nail — just as soon as that UV eraser arrives in the mail.

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Fail of the Week: Hard Lessons in 3D-Printed Bushings for a Giant RC Car

Can you turn 47 pounds (21 kg) of PLA filament into a gigantic working 3D-printed RC car? No, no you can’t — at least not if you eschew proper bearings in favor of printed bushings.

That’s the hard lesson that [Joel Telling] learned with his scaled up version of the OpenRC F1 car, an RC car that can be mostly 3D-printed. The small version still has its share of non-printed parts, mainly screws and bearings. In his video series documenting the build of the upsized version, [Joel] elaborates on some of the reasons for going with printed bushings rather than bearings, which mainly boil down to hoping that the graphite lubricant powder he added would reduce friction enough to prevent the parts from welding themselves together.

The car came out looking great, and even managed to scoot about nicely for a few seconds before its predictably noisy and unhappy demise. But what was unexpected was the actual failure mode. The plastic-on-plastic running gear seemed to handle the rolling loads fine; it was the lateral force exerted on the axle by the tension of the drive belt that was too much for the printed bushing to bear.

As [Joel] rightly points out, it’s only a failure if you fail to learn something, so kudos to him for at least giving this a try. And all that PLA won’t go to waste, of course — everything else on the car worked fine, so adding one bearing should get it back on the road. He should check out our primer on bearings for a few tips on selecting the right one.

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Fail of the Week: How Not to Electric Vehicle

If you ever doubt the potential for catastrophe that mucking about with electric vehicles can present, check out the video below. It shows what can happen to a couple of Tesla battery modules when due regard to safety precautions isn’t paid.

The video comes to us by way of [Rich], a gearhead with a thing for Teslas. He clearly knows his way around the EV world, having rebuilt a flood-soaked Tesla, and aspires to open an EV repair shop. The disaster stems from a novelty vehicle he and friend [Lee] bought as a side project. The car was apparently once a Disney prop car, used in parades with the “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” theme. It was powered by six 6-volt golf cart batteries, which let it maintain a stately, safe pace on a crowded parade route. [Rich] et al would have none of that, and decided to plop a pair of 444-cell Tesla modules into it. The reduced weight and increased voltage made it a real neck-snapper, but the team unwisely left any semblance of battery management out of the build.

You can guess what happened next, or spin up to the 3:00 mark in the video to watch the security camera mayhem. It’s not clear what started the fire, but the modules started cooking off batteries like roman candles. Quick action got it pushed outside to await the fire department, but the car was a total loss long before they showed up. Luckily no other cars in the garage were damaged, nor were there any injuries – not that the car didn’t try to take someone out, including putting a flaming round into [Lee]’s chest and one into the firetruck’s windshield.

[Rich] clearly knew he was literally playing with fire, and paid the price. The lesson here is to respect the power of these beefy batteries, even when you’re just fooling around.

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Fail of the Week: Leaf Blowers Can’t Fly

Leaf blowers, the main instrument of the suburban Saturday symphony, are one of the most useful nuisances. It doesn’t take much work with a rake to convince even the most noise-averse homeowner to head to the Big Box Store to pick one up to speed lawn chores. Once you do buy one, and feel the thrust produced by these handheld banshees, you might wonder, If I let go of this thing, would it fly? 

[Peter Sripol] had that very thought and set about building a couple of leaf blower powered planes to answer the question. It’s probably not a spoiler alert to report that the answer is no, but the video below is a fun watch anyway. The surprising thing is just how close both planes came to succeeding. The first plane was a stripped-down Ryobi two-stroke leaf blower suspended from a giant wing and tail section that very nearly got off the ground. Version 1.1 gained a retractable electric boost propeller – strictly for take-offs – and lost a lot of excess weight. That plane practically leaped into the air, but alas, servo problems prevented [Peter] from shutting down the electric and flying on Ryobi alone. Even a servo fix couldn’t save the next flight, which cratered right after takeoff. A version 2.0, this time using a brutally modified electric leaf blower, was slightly more airworthy but augured in several times before becoming unflyable.

What can we learn from all this? Not much other than it would take a lot of effort to make a leaf blower fly. We appreciate all of [Peter]’s hard work here, but we think he’s better off concentrating on his beautiful homebrew ultralight instead.

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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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