The Best Voltage And Current Reference This Side Of A Test Lab

When you measure a voltage, how do you know that your measurement is correct? Because your multimeter says so, of course! But how can you trust your multimeter to give the right reading? Calibration of instruments is something we often trust blindly without really thinking about, but it’s not always an impossible task only for a high-end test lab. [Petteri Aimonen] had enough need for a calibrated current source to have designed his own, and he’s shared the resulting project for all to see.

The cost of a reference source goes up with the degree of accuracy required, and can stretch into the many millions of dollars if you are seeking the standards of a national metrology institute, but fortunately [Petteri]’s requirements were considerably more modest. 0.02% accuracy would suffice. An Analog Devices precision voltage reference driving a low-offset op-amp with a driver transistor supplies current to a 0.01% precision resistor, resulting in a reference current source fit for his needs. The reference is available in a range of voltages, his chosen 2.048 volts gave a 2.048 mA current sink with a 100 ohm resistor.

In a way it is a miracle of technology that the cheapest digital multimeter on the market can still have a surprisingly good level of calibration thanks to its on-chip bandgap voltage reference, but it never hurts to have a means to check your instruments. Some of us still rather like analogue multimeters, but beware — calibration at the cheaper end of that market can sometimes be lacking.

RTFM: ADCs And DACs

It’s tough to find a project these days that doesn’t use an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) or digital-to-analog converter (DAC) for something. Whether these converters come as built-in peripherals on a microcontroller, or as separate devices connected over SPI, I2C, or parallel buses, all these converters share some common attributes, and knowing how to read the specs on them can save you a lot of headaches when it comes to getting things working properly.

There are some key things to know about these devices, and the first time you try to navigate a datasheet on one, you may find yourself a bit confused. Let’s take a deep dive into the static (DC) properties of these converters — the AC performance is complex enough to warrant its own follow-up article.

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Homebrew Calibration For Test Equipment

If you work for a large company, you probably have test equipment that is routinely calibrated. Some companies have their own metrology labs and others send out to an external lab. In a garage lab, you are less likely to do calibrations and — in our experience — that isn’t usually a problem. Still, it is nice to be able to do at least a sanity check on your gear. Also, if you buy old test gear and repair it, it would be nice to be able to check it, as well. [IMSAI guy] built his own little calibration setup, adding to it over the years, and he shares the details in a recent video, which you can see below.

The board started out simply as one voltage regulator and some 0.01% resistors. Over time, though, he added a few more bells and whistles. The setup isn’t going to rival a NIST-traceable lab setup, but for your garage it is perfectly fine.

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Drifting Instrument Presents Opportunity To Learn About Crystal Oscillators

Sure, we all love fixing stuff, but there’s often a fine line between something that’s worth repairing and something that’s cheaper in the long run to just replace. That line gets blurred, though, when there’s something to be learned from a repair.

This wonky temperature-compensated crystal oscillator is a good example of leaning toward repair just for the opportunity to peek inside. [Kerry Wong] identified it as the problem behind a programmable frequency counter reading significantly low. A TCXO is supposed to output a fixed frequency signal that stays stable over a range of temperatures by using a temperature sensor to adjust a voltage-controlled oscillator that corrects for the crystal’s natural tendency to vary its frequency as it gets hotter or colder. But this TCXO was pretty old, and even the trimmer capacitor provided was no longer enough to nudge it back in range. [Kerry] did some Dremel surgery on the case and came to the conclusion that adding another trim cap between one of the crystal’s leads and ground would help. This gave him a much wider adjustment range and let him zero in on the correct 10-MHz setting. [Mr. Murphy] still runs the show, though – after he got the TCXO buttoned up with the new trimmer inaccessible, he found that the frequency was not quite right. But going from 2 kHz off to only 2 Hz is still pretty good.

Whether it’s the weird world of microwave electronics or building a whole-house battery bank, it’s always fun to watch [Kerry]’s videos, and we usually end up learning a thing or two.

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Characterizing A Cheap 500MHz Counter Module

An exciting development over the last few years has been the arrival of extremely cheap instrumentation modules easily bought online and usually shipped from China. Some of them have extremely impressive paper specifications for their price, and it was one of these that caught the eye of [Carol Milazzo, KP4MD]. A frequency counter for under $14 on your favourite online retailer, and with a claimed range of 500 MHz. That could be a useful instrument in its own right, and with a range that significantly exceeds the capabilities of much more expensive bench test equipment from not so long ago.

Just how good is it though, does it live up to the promise? [Carol] presents the measurements she took from the device, so you can see for yourselves. She took look at sensitivity, VSWR, and input impedance over a wide range, after first checking its calibration against a GPS-disciplined standard and making a fine adjustment with its on-board trimmer.

In sensitivity terms it’s a bit deaf, requiring 0.11 Vrms for a lock at 10 MHz. Meanwhile its input impedance decreases from 600 ohms at the bottom of its range to 80 ohms at 200 MHz, with a corresponding shift in VSWR. So it’s never going to match a high-end bench instrument from which you’d expect much more sensitivity and a more stable impedance, but for the price we’re sure that’s something you can all work around. Meanwhile it’s worth noting from the pictures she’s posted that the board has unpopulated space for an SPI interface header, which leaves the potential for it to be used as a logging instrument.

We think it’s worth having as much information as possible about components like this one, both in terms of knowing about new entrants to the market and in knowing their true performance. So if you were curious about those cheap frequency counter modules, now thanks to [Carol] you have some idea of what they can do.

While it’s convenient to buy a counter module like this one, of course there is nothing to stop you building your own. We’ve featured many over the years, this 100MHz one using a 74-series prescaler or this ATtiny offering for example, or how about this very accomplished one with an Android UI?

3D Printer Tool: Set Your Extruder Steps With Ease

My printer has other issues that i'm still tuning out, but the warping in PLA and excessive surface roughness has all the signs of over extrusion.
My printer has other issues that I’m still tuning out, but the warping in PLA and excessive surface roughness has all the signs of over extrusion.

I have an old Prusa i2 that, like an old car, has been getting some major part replacements lately after many many hours of service. Recently both the extruder and the extruder motor died. The extruder died of brass fill filament sintering to the inside of the nozzle (always flush your extruder of exotic filaments). The motor died at the wires of constant flexing. Regardless, I replaced the motors and found myself with an issue; the new motor and hotend (junk motor from the junk bin, and an E3D v6, which is fantastic) worked way better and was pushing out too much filament.

The hotend, driver gear, extruder mechanics, back pressure, motor, and plastic type all work together to set how much plastic you can push through the nozzle at once. Even the speed at which the plastic is going through the nozzle can change how much friction that plastic experiences. Most of these effects are somewhat negligible. The printer does, however, have a sort of baseline steps per mm of plastic you can set.

The goal is to have a steps per mm that is exactly matched to how much plastic the printer pushes out. If you say 10mm, 10mm of filament should be eaten by the extruder. This setting is the “steps per mm” in the firmware configuration. This number should be close to perfect. Once it is, you can tune it by setting the “extrusion multiplier” setting in most slicers when you switch materials, or have environmental differences to compensate for.

This little guy lets you tune the steps per mm exactly.
This little guy lets you tune the steps per mm exactly.

The problem comes in measuring the filament that is extruded. Filament comes off a spool and is pulled through an imprecisely held nozzle in an imprecisely made extruder assembly. On top of all that, the filament twists and curves. This makes it difficult to hold against a ruler or caliper and get a trustworthy measurement.

I have come up with a little measuring device you can make with some brass tubing, sandpaper, a saw (or pipe cutter), a pencil torch, solder, and some calipers. To start with, find two pieces of tubing. The first’s ID must fit closely with the filament size you use. The second tube must allow the inside tubing to slide inside of it closely. A close fit is essential.

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Repair And Calibration Of Valhalla Programmable Precision Standard

Precision standards are the pinnacle of test and measuring instrumentation. Well engineered, sure, but also beautifully built and a feast to look at, no matter how old they are. [Shahriar] at “The Signal Path” often gives us the skinny on such equipment. In the latest episode, we get a look inside a Valhalla 2701C Programmable Precision DC Voltage Standard.

Even by 1990 standards, it is a fairly basic instrument, capable of producing just DC Voltages from 100nV up to 1200V. But it is a reference standard, so the output is highly stable, accurate and precise.  He snagged it from eBay on the cheap but transport seemed to have caused some damage. It would switch on and relays would click when he pressed buttons, but the 7-segment LED display was blank. Luckily, opening the top cover fixes that problem – just a loose connection between the front display and the main board. Examination also shows that adding a 120mA DC current range would require adding additional components on the main board so his hope of doing a quick firmware upgrade is short lived.

[Shahriar] takes the opportunity to walk us through the various sections of the well built unit. It’s apparently seen some repairs during it’s life. A few capacitors look changed, and a relay housing has seen damage from a soldering iron. The digital section is mainly the 6800 micro controller, an EPROM and a NVRAM, and it generates the PWM signals needed for producing the output voltages. A highly precise reference signal is essential for such equipment, and this one uses the LM299 with a “custom” suffix meaning it was specially screened and binned. He does a quick calibration run, but it’s obviously rushed and doesn’t produce stable results. But that could also be due to the low quality cables he used, or a number of other factors. Calibrating such equipment is a job demanding both time and patience.

While this may not knock your socks off. For that, check out this post where [Shahriar] does a tear down of the one million dollar Labmaster 10-100zi Oscilloscope, or this other one where he plays around with a half a million dollar oscilloscope you’ll probably never use, much less own.

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