Automagic Tool makes KiCAD Schematic Symbols from PDFs

Last time we talked about a KiCAD tool it was to describe a way to make the zen-like task of manual assembly more convenient. But what about that most onerous of EE CAD tasks, part creation? Home makers probably don’t have access to expensive part library subscriptions or teams of people to create parts for them, so they are left to the tedium of creating them by hand. What if the dream tool existed that could read the darn PDF by itself and make a part? It turns out [Sébastien] made that tool and it’s called uConfig.

uConfig has a pretty simple premise. It scrapes manufacturer datasheets in PDF form, finds what it thinks are diagrams of parts with pin names, functions, etc, and emits the result as parts in a KiCAD library. To aid in the final conversion [Sébastien] added rules engine which consume his custom KiCAD Style Sheets which specify how to categorize pins. In the simple case the engine can string match or use regex to let you specify things like “all pins named VDD[A-C] should be power pins”. But it can also be used to move everything it thinks belongs to “GPIOB” and stick them on the bottom of the created symbol. We could imagine features like that would be of particular use breaking out gigantic parts like a 400 ball BeagleBone on a chip.

Thanks for the tip [arturo182]!

Bunnie Weighs in on Tariffs

[Bunnie] has penned his thoughts on the new 25% tariffs coming to many goods shipped from China to the US. Living and working both in the US and China, [Bunnie] has a unique view of manufacturing and trade between the two countries. The creator of Novena and Chumby, he’s also written the definitive guide on Shenzen electronics.

All the marked items are included in the new tariffs

The new US tariffs come into effect on July 6th. We covered the issue last week, but Bunnie has gone in-depth and really illustrates how these taxes will have a terrible impact on the maker community. Components like LEDs, resistors, capacitors, and PCBs will be taxed at the new higher rate. On the flip side, Tariffs on many finished consumer goods such as cell phone will remain unchanged.

As [Bunnie] illustrates, this hurts small companies buying components. Startups buying subassemblies from China will be hit as well. Educators buying parts kits for their classes also face the tax hike. Who won’t be impacted? Companies building finished goods. If the last screw of your device is installed in China, there is no tax. If it is installed in the USA, then you’ll pay 25% more on your Bill of Materials (BOM). This incentivizes moving assembly offshore.

What will be the end result of all these changes? [Bunnie] takes a note from Brazil’s history with a look at a PC ISA network card. With DIP chips and all through-hole discrete components, it looks like a typical 80’s design. As it turns out the card was made in 1992. Brazil had similar protectionist tariffs on high-tech goods back in the 1980’s. As a result, they lagged behind the rest of the world in technology. [Bunnie] hopes these new tariffs don’t cause the same thing to happen to America.

[Thanks to [Robert] and [Christian] for sending this in]

Making Electronics Just Got 25% More Expensive In The US

As reported by the BBC, the United States is set to impose a 25% tariff on over 800 categories of Chinese goods. The tariffs are due to come into effect in three weeks, on July 6th. Thousands of different products are covered under this new tariff, and by every account, electronic designers will be hit hard. Your BOM cost just increased by 25%.

The reason for this tariff is laid out in a report (PDF) from the Office of the United States Trade Representative. In short, this tariff is retaliation for the Chinese government subsidizing businesses to steal market share and as punishment for stealing IP. As for what products will now receive the 25% tariff, a partial list is available here (PDF). The most interesting product, by far, is nuclear reactors. This is a very specific list; one line item is, ‘multiphase AC motors, with an output exceeding 746 Watts but not exceeding 750 Watts’.

Of importance to Hackaday readers is the list of electronic components covered by the new tariff. Tantalum capacitors are covered, as are ceramic caps. Metal oxide resistors are covered. LEDs, integrated circuits including processors, controllers, and memories, and printed circuit assemblies are covered under this tariff. In short, nearly every bit that goes into anything electronic is covered.

This will hurt all electronics manufacturers in the United States. For a quick example, I’m working on a project using half a million LEDs. I bought these LEDs (120 reels) two months ago for a few thousand dollars. This was a fantastic buy; half a million of the cheapest LEDs I could find on Mouser would cost seventeen thousand dollars. Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff. Of course; the price on the parts from Mouser will also go up — Kingbright LEDs are also made in China. Right now, I have $3000 worth of ESP-12e modules sitting on my desk. If I bought these three weeks from now, these reels of WiFi modules would cost $3750.

There are stories of a few low-volume manufacturers based in the United States getting around customs and import duties. One of these stories involves the inexplicable use of the boxes Beats headphones come in. But (proper) electronics manufacturing isn’t usually done by simply throwing money at random people in China or committing customs fraud. These tariffs will hit US-based electronics manufacturers hard, and the margins on electronics may not be high enough to absorb a 25% increase in the cost of materials.

Electronics made in America just got 25% more expensive to produce.

Build Your Own Avionics Suite, If You Dare

If you’re really interested in aircraft and flying, there are many ways to explore that interest. There are models of a wide range of sizes and complexities that are powered and remote-controlled, and even some small lightweight aircraft that can get you airborne yourself for a minimum of expense. If you’re lucky enough to have your own proper airplane, though, and you’re really into open source projects, you can also replace your airplane’s avionics kit with your own open source one.

Avionics are the electronics that control and monitor the aircraft, and they’re a significant part of the aircraft’s ability to fly properly. This avionics package from [j-omega] (who can also be found on hackaday.io) will fit onto a small aircraft engine and monitor things like oil temperature, RPM, coolant temperature, and a wide array of other features of the engine. It’s based on an ATmega microcontroller, and has open-source schematics for the entire project and instructions for building it yourself. Right now it doesn’t seem like the firmware is available on the GitHub page yet, but will hopefully be posted soon for anyone who’s interested in an open-source avionics package like this.

The project page does mention that this is experimental as well, so it might not be advised to use in your own personal aircraft without some proper testing first. That being said, if you’ve heard that warning and have decided just to stay on the ground, it’s possible to have a great experience without getting in a real airplane at all.

Business On The Outside, Electronics Workstation On The Inside

As an electrical engineering student, [Brandon Rice] had the full suite of electronics tools you’d expect. Cramming them all into a dorm room was doable — but cramped — a labour to square everything away from his desk’s top when he had to work on something else. To make it easier on himself, he built himself a portable electronics workstation inside the dimensions of a briefcase.

Built from scratch, the workstation includes a list of features that should have you salivating by the end. Instead of messing with a bunch of cables, on-board power is supplied by a dismantled 24V, 6A power brick, using a buck converter and ATmega to regulate and display the voltage, with power running directly to  12V and 5V lines of a breadboard in the middle of the workstation. A wealth of components are stored in two dozen 3d printed 1″ capsules setting them in loops pinned to the lid.

If all this was not already enough, there’s more!

Continue reading “Business On The Outside, Electronics Workstation On The Inside”

Harvesting Energy from the Earth with Quantum Tunneling

More energy hits the earth in sunlight every day than humanity could use in about 16,000 years or so, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to tap into other sources of energy too. One source that shows promise is geothermal, but these methods have been hindered by large startup costs and other engineering challenges. A new way to tap into this energy source has been found however, which relies on capturing the infrared radiation that the Earth continuously gives off rather than digging large holes and using heat exchangers.

This energy is the thermal radiation that virtually everything gives off in some form or another. The challenge in harvesting this energy is that since the energy is in the infrared range, exceptionally tiny antennas are needed which will resonate at that frequency. It isn’t just fancy antennas, either; a new type of diode had to be manufactured which uses quantum tunneling to convert the energy into DC electricity.

While the scientists involved in this new concept point out that this is just a prototype at this point, it shows promise and could be a game-changer since it would allow clean energy to be harvested whenever needed, and wouldn’t rely on the prevailing weather. While many clean-energy-promising projects often seem like pipe dreams, we can’t say it’s the most unlikely candidate for future widespread adoption we’ve ever seen.

Minimizing ESP8266 Battery Drain

[Alex Jensen] wanted to build a battery-powered weather station, using an ESP8266 breakout board to connect to WiFi. However, [Alex]’s research revealed that the ESP chip uses around 70mA per hour when the radio is on — meaning that he’d have to change batteries a lot more than he wanted to. He really wanted a low power rig such that he’d only have to change batteries every 2 years on a pair of AAs.

The two considerations would be, how often does the ESP get powered up for data transmissions — and how often the weather station’s ATtiny85 takes sensor readings. Waking up the ESP from sleep mode takes about 16mA — plus, once awake it takes about 3 seconds to reconnect, precious time at 70mA. However, by using a static IP address he was able to pare that down to half a second, with one more second to do the actual data transmission. In addition to the hourly WiFi connection, the Tiny85 must be powered, though its relatively modest 1.5mA per hour doesn’t amount to much, even with the chip awake for 36 hours during the year. All told, the various components came to around 500 mAh per year, so using a pair of AA batteries should keep the rig going for years.

We’re intrigued by stories of hackers eking out every last drop of power to make their projects work. We’ve posted about ESPs low-power mode before, and what can be more low-power than a watch running off a coin cell?