Fail of the Week: The Semiconductor Lapping Machine That Can’t Lap Straight

It seemed like a good idea to build a semiconductor lapping machine from an old hard drive. But there’s just something a little off about [electronupdate]’s build, and we think the Hackaday community might be able to pitch in to help.

For those not into the anatomy and physiology of semiconductors, getting a look at the inside of the chip can reveal valuable information needed to reverse engineer a device, or it can just scratch the itch of curiosity. Lapping (the gentle grinding away of material) is one way to see the layers that make up the silicon die that lies beneath the epoxy. Hard drives designed to spin at 7200 rpm or more hardly seem a suitable spinning surface for a gentle lapping, but [electronupdate] just wanted the platter for its ultra-smooth, ultra-flat surface.

He removed the heads and replaced the original motor with a gear motor and controller to spin the platter at less than 5 rpm. A small holder for the decapped die was fashioned, and pinched between the platter hub and an idler. It gently rotates the die against the abrasive-covered platter as it slowly revolves. But the die wasn’t abrading evenly. He tried a number of different fixtures for the die, but never got to the degree of precision needed to see through the die layer by layer. We wonder if the weight of the die fixture is deflecting the platter a bit?

Failure is a great way to learn, if you can actually figure out where you went wrong. We look to the Hackaday community for some insight. Check out the video below and sound off in the comments if you’ve got any ideas.

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Alexa And Particle Modernize Coffee Machine By One Iota

When [Steve Parker]’s girlfriend got a tea kettle that takes voice commands, he suddenly saw his fancy bean-to-cup coffee machine as a technological dinosaur. It may make good coffee, but getting the DeLonghi going is inconvenient, because it runs a self-cleaning cycle each time it’s turned on or off.

Thus began [Steve]’s adventure in trying to turn the thing on with Alexa via Particle Photon. Because of the way the machine is designed, simply adding a relay wouldn’t do—the machine would just turn off and back on, only to start the self-clean again. Once inside, he found it’s controlled by a PIC18LF2520. Further research indicated that it is powered by an off-line switcher that combines a power MOSFET with a power supply controller. [Steve] figured out that the buttons are read via square wave and interpreted by a multiplexer.

The project went into the weeds a bit when [Steve] tried to read the signals with a knock-off Saleae. As soon as he plugged it in, the control board fried because the DeLonghi evidently has no reference to Earth ground. While waiting for a replacement board to arrive, he tried replacing the mux and shift register chips, which actually fixed the board. Then it was more or less a matter of using the DeLonghi’s status LEDs to determine the machine’s state, and then to interface with the Photon and Alexa. Cycle past the break for a ristretto-sized demonstration.

[Steve] didn’t do all this to actually make coffee, just turn the machine on with a voice command. The Photon is totally capable of making coffee, though, as we saw with this closed-loop espresso machine.

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Friend in Need Gets Junk Bin PC for Cramped Quarters

If you doubt the power of the Hackaday community, check this one out. Stalwart reader and tipster [starhawk] has pitched in to help a friend in need, someone he met through Seems this friend’s current living arrangements are somewhat on the cramped side, and while he’s in need of a PC, even a laptop would claim too much space.

So with a quick trip to the store and a few items from the junk bin, [starhawk] whipped up an all-in-one PC the size of a tablet for his friend. As impressed as we are by the generosity, we’re more impressed by the quality of his junk bin. The heart of the compact machine is a motherboard from a Wintel CX-W8, scarcely larger than a Raspberry Pi model A. After the addition of a larger heatsink and fan, the board was attached via a sheet of plastic to the back of a 7-inch touchscreen, also a junk bin find. A cheap picture frame serves as the back of the all-in-one, complete with Jolly Wrencher, of course. Alas, the DC-DC converter was one of the only purchased items, bringing the cost for the build to all of $22, including the $15 for a wireless keyboard/touchpad on clearance from Walmart. After some initial power troubles, the fixes for which are described in this update, the machine was ready to ship.

Does this one seem familiar? It should — [starhawk] built a similar “laptop” for himself a while back when he was low on funds. Now it seems like he’s paying it forward, which we appreciate. For more details on how he pulled this all of, check out The Anytop, [starhawk’s] portable computer anyone can build. It was his 2017 Hackaday Prize entry!

Visit Tapigami Tape City, Where Tape Is The Fabric Of Society

With so many cool things going on at Bay Area Maker Faire, it takes something special to stand out from the crowd. Covering several hundred square feet of floor and wall with creations made of tape would do the trick. Welcome to Tapigami Tape City, a traveling art exhibit by [Danny Scheible].

Many of us used construction paper, glue, and tape to express our creativity in our youth. Tapigami’s minimalism drops the paper and glue, practitioners of the art stick to tape. It is an accessible everyday material so there is no barrier to entry to start having fun. And while tape does have some obvious limitations, it is possible to get quite creatively elaborate and still use tape almost exclusively.

The Tapigami booth is very happy to accommodate those wishing to learn the way of tape. At their table, young and old alike are welcome to sit down and start building basic shapes out of masking tape. This begins with cones, cylinders, and cubes which are then combined into more complex creations — it’s kind of like OpenSCAD, but all with tape.

Attendees of Bay Area Maker Faire should not miss seeing Tape City in person, it’s quite the sight to behold in the south-east corner of Zone 2. (Not far from the Tindie/Hackaday booth, stop by and say hi!) And while it’s plenty of fun to stick to tape, we can see the Hackaday demographic taking these concepts up a few notches. If you’ve pulled off something mind blowing using tape, you know where our tip line is.

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Motorized Stage Finesses the Microscopic World

No matter how fine your fine motor skills may be, it’s really hard to manipulate anything on the stage of a microscope with any kind of accuracy. One jitter or caffeine-induced tremor means the feature of interest on the sample you’re looking at shoots off out of the field of view, and getting back to where you were is a tedious matter of trial and error.

Mechanical help on the microscope stage is nice, and electromechanical help is even better, but a DIY fully motorized microscope stage with complete motion control is the way to go for the serious microscopist on a budget. Granted, not too many people are in [fabiorinaldus]’ position of having a swell microscope like the Olympus IX50, and those that do probably work for an outfit that can afford all the bells and whistles. But this home-brew stage ticks off all the boxes on design and execution. The slide is moved across the stage in two dimensions with small NEMA-8 steppers and microstepping controllers connected to two linear drives that are almost completely 3D-printed. The final resolution on the drives is an insane 0.000027344 mm. An Arduino lives in the custom-built control box and a control pad with joystick, buttons, and an OLED display allow the stage to return to set positions of interest. It’s really quite a build.

We’ve featured a lot of microscope hacks before, most of them concerning the reflective inspection scopes we all seem to covet for SMD work. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t shown love for optical scopes before, and electron microscopes have popped up a time or two as well.

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The Pros and Cons of Microcontrollers for Boost Converters

It never fails — we post a somewhat simple project using a microcontroller and someone points out that it could have been accomplished better with a 555 timer or discrete transistors or even a couple of vacuum tubes. We welcome the critiques, of course; after all, thoughtful feedback is the point of the comment section. Sometimes the anti-Arduino crowd has a point, but as [Great Scott!] demonstrates with this microcontroller-less boost converter, other times it just makes sense to code your way out of a problem.

Built mainly as a comeback to naysayers on his original boost-converter circuit, which relied on an ATtiny85, [Great Scott!] had to go to considerable lengths to recreate what he did with ease using a microcontroller. He started with a quick demo using a MOSFET driver and a PWM signal from a function generator, which does the job of boosting the voltage, but lacks the feedback needed to control for varying loads.

Ironically relying on a block diagram for a commercial boost controller chip, which is probably the “right” tool for the job he put together the final circuit from a largish handful of components. Two op amps form the oscillator, another is used as a differential amp to monitor the output voltage, and the last one is a used as a comparator to create the PWM signal to control the MOSFET. It works, to be sure, but at the cost of a lot of effort, expense, and perf board real estate. What’s worse, there’s no simple path to adding functionality, like there would be for a microcontroller-based design.

Of course there are circuits where microcontrollers make no sense, but [Great Scott!] makes a good case for boost converters not being one of them if you insist on DIYing. If you’re behind on the basics of DC-DC converters, fear not — we’ve covered that before.

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A Vacuum Tube and Barbecue Lighter X-Ray Generator

A certain subset of readers will remember a time when common knowledge held that sitting too close to the TV put you in mortal peril. We were warned to stay at least six feet back to avoid the X-rays supposedly pouring forth from the screen. Nobody but our moms believed it, so there we sat, transfixed and mere inches from the Radiation King, working on our tans as we caught up on the latest cartoons. We all grew up mostly OK, so it must have been a hoax.

Or was it? It turns out that getting X-rays from vacuum tubes is possible, at least if this barbecue lighter turned X-ray machine is legit. [GH] built it after playing with some 6J1 rectifier tubes and a 20-kV power supply yanked from an old TV, specifically to generate X-rays. It turned out that applying current between the filament and the plate made a Geiger counter click, so to simplify the build, the big power supply was replaced with the piezoelectric guts from a lighter. That worked too, but not for long — the tube was acting as a capacitor, storing up charge each time the trigger on the lighter was pulled, eventually discharging through and destroying the crystal. A high-voltage diode from a microwave oven in series with the crystal as a snubber fixed the problem, and now X-rays are as easy as lighting a grill.

We have to say we’re a wee bit skeptical here, and would love to see a video of a test. But the principle is sound, and if it works it’d be a great way to test all those homebrew Geiger counters we’ve featured, like this tiny battery-powered one, or this one based on the venerable 555 timer chip.